Profile: A spirited defence

Peter Gutierrez, managing director of Jose Cuervo International, is taking on tequila's negative connotations. Interview by Gemma Charles.

As the managing director of Jose Cuervo International, Peter Gutierrez has been persuading his friends to drink tequila. This is part of his mission to change perceptions about what is widely seen as the ultimate party drink, guaranteed to leave its consumers feeling the worse for wear.

'I'm having a lot of fun getting my more mature mates to give it another twirl,' says Gutierrez. Although he often encounters some resistance - 'I had a bad night on that. Never again,' is a common response - he has been able to win most of them around.

An aged tequila, he argues, can be drunk like whisky and other spirits. 'The best way to keep tequila is to have it in your freezer as you would vodka,' he says. 'It does taste wonderful when you consume it like that.'

In it for the long-haul

While he may have won over his friends, the 47-year-old is under no illusion that combating misconceptions of his product will be difficult. 'It could take a generation to get the job done,' he admits. 'Am I going to start tomorrow with a whisky-type campaign? No, I'm not, because the jump would be too huge, but I am in a hurry and I'm anxious to lay those first foundations.'

Gutierrez, who took up his position in January, is responsible for all Jose Cuervo's territories except the US and Mexico, and has briefed Albion to create a campaign that will work in a wide range of countries.

He is also visiting the brand's major markets and has just completed 'phase one' of a 'world tour' that has helped him form a view about what is required. 'I don't know what the campaign will look like yet, but it will have to be scaleable and dare to be different,' he says.

Gutierrez's appointment represents a strategic shift for Jose Cuervo. The previous incumbent in the role was based in New York and the marketing was handled largely by distributors. Now, Gutierrez explains, there is a desire for more consistency and control of the brand. 'The distributors' marketing efforts have been good, but when you take a step back and look at the whole piece, you just see a blizzard of activity that isn't very joined up,' he says.

With his deep tan, sharp suit and gruff voice, Gutierrez seems a perfect match for the tequila brand. Yet, he has spent the majority of his working life at PepsiCo working in general management and marketing on everything from Doritos - overseeing its UK launch - to Pepsi itself.

Gutierrez's career has also taken him halfway around the world and back; he recounts how he went from Leicester, where he worked for Walkers, to Caracas, to take up a role at UD Venezuela. PepsiCo then poached him back as marketing director for its combined French snacks business, before promoting him to EMEA vice-president of marketing for Frito-Lay and then chief executive of one of PepsiCo's joint-venture operations in Israel.

During a stint in Thailand, Gutierrez introduced a successful seaweed-flavour crisp and then took his own Pepsi Challenge as general manager of the UK carbonated-drinks business, drawing him into a battle with the might of Coca-Cola. 'On the snack side we were always number one, so doing the cola wars was an interesting challenge,' he says, seeing fit to add that he managed to 'take a couple of share points' from the undisputed category leader.

Gutierrez then moved back into marketing as chief marketing officer of PepsiCo's international business, based in New York, but found he had developed a taste for general management. In addition, his son was approaching secondary-school age making it an opportune time to return to the UK, so, at the end of 2008, he bade farewell to PepsiCo for a second time.

During the following year Gutierrez worked as a consultant and became a keen triathlete which 'kept me fit and sane'. He took the Jose Cuervo role because, he says, it met all his criteria - it involved general management, was fun and consumer-facing, and presented a challenge.

One could argue that Gutierrez's lineage has also given him a bond with the brand. Born in London to Spanish parents, he was president of the Hispanic Society during his student days at Oxford. Indeed, he used this background to his advantage during the recruitment process, impressing Casa Cuervo chief executive Juan Domingo Beckmann with his fluent Spanish at their first interview. The next step was a trip to the Mexican town of Tequila, where the brand's head office is based, for a meeting with Juan Domingo's father, Juan Vidal, the company's chairman.

According to Gutierrez, Casa Cuervo's headquarters is like a museum, and he was struck by the history of the brand which has been made by 10 generations of the family over 270 years. The town is the only place in the world where tequila is produced, lending it an air of cottage industry. 'It's a very romantic place, absolutely dripping with culture,' he says.

As the business is still wholly owned and run by the family, Gutierrez relishes the speed at which decisions can be made. 'I get approvals on a phone call, there's hardly any form-filling,' he says. 'After PepsiCo I've felt the benefits of that.'

During his recent globe-trotting, Gutierrez has discovered that perceptions of tequila are very similar the world over. He sums up what he calls tequila's 'baggage' as the view that it is a 'rite-of-passage drink that has a narrow appeal to a set of consumers at the young-adult end of the market'.

Its bad press is not deserved, however, according to Gutierrez. 'Because tequila gets drunk at the end of an evening, when lots of other drinks have already been consumed, as with any spirit that gets treated in that way, the next day you are not going to feel great,' he says. 'However, it's always the tequila that gets the blame.' Downing a shot of tequila is not, in itself, an irresponsible way to drink the spirit, claims Gutierrez, adding that the problem lies in the fact that consumers often have 'four pints of lager and God knows what else', first.

Gutierrez wants to find a way to appeal to the more affluent. He suggests there is a huge opportunity to market tequila's role as a cocktail ingredient, or for mixing with fruit juices, cola or tonic, claiming that a 'scary number' of people are unaware that margaritas contain tequila. He also wonders whether the ritual surrounding the downing of tequila shots with salt and lime could be made more interesting.

Nonetheless, he is not cowed by the product's baggage; instead, he wants to use it to inform his marketing strategy. 'What I love about tequila is that it has an edge to it. I'd rather it were naughty than nothing,' he says. 'I'm not going to run away from the fact that Cuervo is a tequila, but I just want to get people to take another look at it.'

Inside work
1991-1994: Marketing manager, Walkers Snackfoods
1994-1997: Marketing director, UD Venezuela
1997-2008: Marketing director, PepsiCo France, rising to chief marketing
officer, PepsiCo International
2009-present: Managing director, Jose Cuervo International
Outside work
Family: Married with two children
Lives: Wargrave, Berkshire
Last holiday: Egypt
Football team: Tottenham Hotspur
And another thing ... He has an MBA from Harvard Business School

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