Profile: Nick Fell, group marketing director at SABMiller

 Nick Fell, group marketing director at SABMiller
Nick Fell, group marketing director at SABMiller

Nick Fell is sure of the value of local knowledge in the global market. Interview by Gemma Charles.

Nothing seems to faze Nick Fell, SABMiller's confident group marketing director. When we meet, the City is buzzing with rumours of a super-merger between his employer and rival brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev. While consolidation is the name of the game in the drinks sector, this would be one of the biggest such deals to date, creating a company worth $80bn (£50bn).

He tackles the subject head-on with some corporate fighting talk. 'It would be difficult for ABI to buy us right now,' he says. 'You buy someone when investors think that your management can do a better job. The way our shares are valued says very clearly that the market rates our management much higher than theirs.'

Fell may be confident, but this never crosses into arrogance. He has a nice line in self-deprecation, displayed when he refers to his daughter mocking his dress sense. While he does indulge in marketing-speak from time to time, he is never dull, spicing things up with the odd expletive and rant. At one point he starts off talking about brand management, but somehow ends up singing the praises of capitalism.

Local knowledge

With a CV boasting global marketing roles across a host of famous names and now five years under his belt overseeing more than 200 beers at SABMiller, Fell says the biggest lesson he has learned is how to make global brands work anywhere.

'The great challenge is to adapt them without adulterating what they basically stand for. It's not like sudoku where there's one right answer. It's quite fuzzy,' he says.

Fell points out that this is a problem that keeps the best marketing brains busy in big businesses, but more so when the products require some kind of emotional buy-in.

'Things that clean toilets will do so all over the world, but people get acculturated to different tastes in the categories I've worked in,' he says. 'Their bonds with brands are hugely emotional, so you need deep local intimacy and understanding of the consumer to make that connection.'

Fell's company's commercial strategy has a slogan: 'Global might for the local fight.' So while it has a handful of global brands - Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, Miller Genuine Draft and Grolsch - its approach is rooted in gaining a deep understanding of local markets and avoiding top-down edicts.

Since arriving at SABMiller from Cadbury in 2006, Fell has implemented a marketing restructure. 'We had a way of doing marketing that was extremely brand-centric,' he says. 'I introduced a way of thinking about marketing as not just brand marketing, but shopper marketing and customer marketing.' He adds with a chuckle: 'It's all a bit geeky, but it's critical to our way of thinking about the market.'

This approach is very different from that of some other marketing departments, says Fell, where these various roles have splintered away from each other, resulting in 'internal power struggles where people who should be pulling in the same direction find it difficult to do so because they have quite different views of the world'.

His team of 60, based in London, is split between those working on the four global brands and those in specialist roles. 'There is a massive effort in our business to connect the world; it's a significant proportion of what the global marketing group does.' Internally, Fell says this is known as 'moving shit that works from one place to another'.

The team is there to advise, rather than direct, local markets; marketers outside the global group have no reporting line to Fell. 'People like to know who their boss is and need to feel complete ownership of the solution to their problems,' he explains.

The one area in which this can differ is where 'partner markets' sign up to an agreement on strategy and its implementation. This is the case with Italian lager Peroni, SABMiller's biggest brand in the UK. The use of tasteful marketing such as high-end cinema ads and tie-ups with stylish Italians such as Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli has driven a boost in sales.

Peroni is now walking the line between dealing with surging demand and retaining its upmarket image. Everyone in the industry is acutely aware of the need to avoid the fate that befell Stella Artois, which had its 'reassuringly expensive' brand equity destroyed by supermarkets' cut-price deals.

'We've learned over the past 10 years that if you try to build a premium brand by making it available to everyone everywhere, then all you do is kill all the things that consumers are looking for that give it premium quality,' says Fell. So, while Peroni is available in all the major multiples, it is sold in four-packs in the 'world beers' section, not half-price, 20-bottle cases.

Despite the global decline of the on-trade, Fell likes to tell his team that the biggest social network for anyone in the drinks business is still the pub. He appears to view the explosion of marketing interest in social media as something akin to the Emperor's new clothes. Fell is well aware that what he is saying is unfashionable, but seems to relish the role of the wise old sage.

'Every five years something is invented by the marketing community and everything is' - he puts on a mocking voice - '"fundamentally changed". It's right that there should be focus on this stuff, because the job of getting to your consumer is hugely more complex, so you can't discount these things. I'm just saying that in terms of the amount of (social media) talk compared with the other components of what it takes to have a successful brand, the conversation has become over-balanced.'

This is not to say that Fell no longer gets excited by marketing. He talks with passion about his favourite SABMiller work - a TV ad for Romanian beer Timisoara showing a beer barrel rolling through time, in a similar vein to the 2008 Hovis relaunch ad.

Romanian consumers' warm feelings for the brand have had a direct effect on the bottom line. Fell reports that during the recession, drinkers actually traded up from economy brands to the mid-market 'Timi', as a trusted brand during hard times.

However, he questions the value of activity such as the popular Coca-Cola and Mentos viral work, expressing doubts that the mint brand's sales increased as a result. 'If you can't have measurability, you are behaving irresponsibly,' says Fell. 'We don't get given this money to entertain the public. We get given it to build strong businesses that make bigger returns to shareholders and pensions and bigger tax for governments - and more secure employment for people who work for it.'

While Fell at one point refers to himself as an 'old fart', given his desire to lead and not follow, 'breath of fresh air' could be a more accurate description.

INSIDE WORK

1988-2001: Global brands director, Johnnie Walker, rising to global marketing director, Guinness, United Distillers

2001-2006: President, commercial strategy, Cadbury Schweppes

2006-present: Group marketing director, SABMiller

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Married, two daughters

Lives: Slough

Last film: The Fighter

Drives: A Porsche Boxter S

And another thing ... His last holiday was cancelled after his wife tore her cruciate ligament

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