How Garbhan O'Bric is tackling decline at Baileys

The Baileys global brand director takes Gemma Charles through his efforts to revive the fortunes of the Diageo-owned cream liqueur brand

The challenge

Baileys is this great brand that has been the most successful innovation in the spirits industry in the past century. It was very radical for its day and it created a category. 

After its launch in 1974, it took off like a bat out of hell and had consistent growth for three decades – but then the wheels came off. 

The decline started in 2008, but it would be wrong to assume that it was an economic problem; a lot of other brands struggled then, but have subsequently recovered. 

Strategically, we were off the mark for quite a period of time; the brand became tired and dated, it had lost relevance and the cultural currency that it once had. 

In his book Faster, James Gleick writes that one of the greatest challenges brands face is change, because it is unpredictable, uncontrollable and the rate of it is accelerating all the time. Brands need to be able to move with society, with cultures. You have to be timeless, but you also have to be timely. What happened to us is that the world moved on and Baileys didn’t keep up. 

We had become very focused on the product and the occasion. While that’s important, it’s not everything. Iconic brands have an ideal or a promise that people aspire to, whether it’s Johnnie Walker with ‘Keep walking’ or Coca-Cola’s ‘Open happiness’.

Taking this challenge on was one of the most intimidating tasks I’ve ever been given, from a work perspective; but, of course, really exciting. 

The plan

We had all this tracking data that said Baileys is less relevant than it once was, but I wanted to go deeper.

I tried to find every single person who, at some stage, had worked on the brand during the launch.

I had a powerful conversation with the launch marketing director, Noel Toolan, who had also seen it through powerful growth. 

He said we’d forgotten what this brand was about and what it stands for. In the early 70s, women’s rights were transforming society, but in pubs in Ireland, women were still faced with an unfriendly world of thick, foggy smoke and the only choice of drink was stout or whiskey. Baileys was specifically created for a female profile, with the core belief that women deserve better than this.

So we took that truth, which defined Baileys during its successful times, and made it timely and relevant for today. By redefining the position Baileys takes, which is to champion and celebrate the progress of women and to inspire them to shine, it is our view that this will put the magic and flair back into the brand. When it comes to communications, this enables us to pursue two critical things: emotional engagement and fame. I don’t say this lightly or loosely, if you look at the work of Les Binet and Peter Field [Marketing in the Era of Accountability] across 900 IPA award-winning case studies, it empirically proves a direct correlation between commercial success and emotional engagement and fame. 

We did a huge amount of quantitative and qualitative research globally [in China, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Germany, Italy, Mexico, North America and Brazil] on the issues that define how women identify themselves today, their fears, hopes and aspirations.

This piece of research was an awakening for us and a realisation that, in so many markets, what we’re about is what women are about. 

The action

This is not an advertising-led strategy. We are completely recalibrating every facet of Baileys apart from the liquid – which is still sensational (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the taste of it) – and the name. This is a global key priority for Diageo and the marketing budget has been dramatically increased.

Our marketing thinking has become our organisational thinking. We’re changing our production and supply strategies, as well as our pricing and innovation strategies. 

The new bottle design, which is its single biggest transformation since launch, is not something you enter into lightly. Now it’s taller, slimmer, and we have lifted the shoulders, so it’s more elegant. We worked with the brilliant Mary Lewis in London. The ‘Double B’ has been elevated as part of the iconography. This did incredibly well in our research, as it was associated with style and fashion brands, like the Gucci ‘G’ lock and Fendi ‘F’ lock.

We will talk about the liquid, but we will be dramatic. We’re a brand for women, so there has to be a design and style aesthetic that appeals to women. How we ‘turn up’ in grocery, in the on-trade and in duty-free airports will be transformed. 

We have appointed R/GA as our global digital agency. We’re not looking for a redesign of our Facebook page, we’re looking to rethink the role of this brand in women’s lives in a digital age. When you look at the agency’s work on Nike+ FuelBand, that’s not really digital thinking, that’s awesome innovation. 

We will be unapologetically true to Adam Morgan’s thinking in Eating the Big Fish; over-commit to what you believe in, and if something is superfluous to your beliefs, then don’t do it. 

It might mean you are not for everyone and might reduce the ultimate audience you appeal to, but better to have a powerful relationship with few than a diluted, denuded relationship with many. The reality, however, is that iconic brands end up loved by all. 

The results (so far)

Baileys is getting talked about in a way that it hasn't for a long time. At this year’s Oscars, for example, we were in the centre-break advertising across the US. Baileys was the first spirits brand to do this and it got picked up by The New York Times. There was a 10- to 15-fold increase in aggregate Twitter engagement with the brand during "Oscar week".

Our half-year results show that Baileys is currently at 1% growth. That is the first time in four years that the brand hasn’t declined. Baileys in North America, our single biggest market, is growing at 6%; in China 48%; Africa 40% and South America 7%. This gives us confidence that we are on the right track. Nonetheless, Western Europe and, in particular, Great Britain, remains incredibly challenging. 

Three things will have an impact here for some time: the length of time it will take to drive brand re-engagement; the commercial difficulties of the region; and our reduction in promotions as we move out of discounting. 

The advertising [‘Cream with spirit’, created by BBH] is performing in the top 1% of all alcohol ads ever link-tested by Millward Brown. It is also the joint-highest-performing ad that Diageo has ever run in North America, so we take sustenance from that, too. 

We haven’t turned the corner yet, but we think we can see where the corner is. 

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