Drinking in China

I came across an article from The Guardian (via Mark Brown’s Buffalo Trace Newsletter) with the headline – The Rise of Binge Drinking in China. The sub-headline was even more intriguing:

Binge drinking is increasingly common for Chinese professionals – often it’s even in the job description.

We’re not talking about people in the booze business either.

It reminded me of my brief sojourn as head of marketing for Asia Pacific/ Global Duty Free.

The assignment was, as they say, good news and bad news. On the one hand, it was my first head of marketing position, global in scope and in a new frontier – Asia. A dream come true, what’s not to like?


While there were offices throughout Asia, headquarters was in New York. No relocation, but when you travel to the markets you’re not going for a week at a time. No… more like 2 to 3 weeks (and weekends) a month away from home.

The guy running the operation was a smart executive but very strange. Let’s leave it at that, for now.

Two strikes but easily offset, at least initially, by the terrific people and the excitement of the new frontier. The drinking was another matter. Let’s go back to the article:

Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China. “When one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough,” runs one traditional saying.

I would not have put it so elegantly when I was there. For me it was fear of the words Yam Sing that literally mean, “Dry your cup” or “Bottoms up.” Oh, how I hated those words!

The big push in China at the time was Martell Cognac recently acquired by Seagram. The presence of Cognac in the portfolio, then as now, is important for business development in China. And, man oh man; our people loved their Cognac. At dinners, we had Cognac as cocktails (straight) with dinner (no wine) and of course after dinner. Every glass was accompanied by those two dreaded words – Yam Sing. Someone would stand up, raise a glass, say some words in Mandarin or Cantonese and end with the fearful Yam Sing. It was bad face not to drain your glass/tumbler even if it had been filled to the brim. No sniffing, no swirling, no gazing at the golden hues – just down the hatch.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Cognac in small amounts, in a snifter, maybe by a fireplace on a cold winter night after an exceptional meal. Down the hatch or bottoms up are not the ways in which I enjoy it. After a few weeks of this, the migraines set in.

I asked my colleagues in the region why Cognac before and with meals. The answers were not helpful. They ranged from “strong food needs a strong drink,” or “Cognac is very western and very masculine,” and the all time favorite (said with a wink of the eye) “excellent aphrodisiac.” All the time I was thinking in response to each reason 1) Chinese food is best with good beer 2) western and macho means cowboys and whiskey and 3) what good is an aphrodisiac when you have a throbbing headache.

Finally one day the solution occurred to me.

At most dinners I made it a point to sit near a potted plant, pretend to take a drink when no one seemed to be looking and down the hatch was the plant’s problem. Must have destroyed more plants than any disease had ever done. Hey, I’m not proud of it, but it was either a headache or the plant.

Fortunately, a few months later, the US head of marketing position came up and it was Joi gin from this Gwailo.


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Bill Bernbach

Last week most of the advertising industry trade magazines had articles about Bernbach on the centennial of his birthday. I thought I would contribute by relating the story of him, Edgar M. Bronfman and Chivas Regal.

Before I do, however, for those of you who are unfamiliar with him, here is some background on the man who revolutionized creativity in advertising – no, make that brand and product selling.

Bill Bernbach’s style of advertising changed brand communication. He was the anti “Mad Men” focusing on compelling messages that broke through the clutter and resonated with consumers. “The difference between the forgettable and the endurable is artistry,” was how he put it. So think about such ads as Avis “We Try Harder” or Volkswagen “Think Small” or “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye bread.”

His effort on behalf of Chivas Regal is an interesting story as described by Edgar M. Bronfman in his book Good Spirits, and by Paul Pacult in A Double Scotch – How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons.

In the 1960’s after the acquisition of Chivas, the brand began to languish in the face of competition from such lighter scotches as Cutty Sark and J&B Rare. Edgar managed to convince his father that changes needed to be made to stem the sales declines. These included product reformulation, new packaging and a new ad campaign. Enter Bill Bernbach.

As the story goes, when Bernbach showed the new ads to Edgar there was one ad at the bottom of the pile that he kept hiding. When pushed by Bronfman to reveal it, Bernbach pointed out that it was intended as an introductory ad for the new package and that he was concerned that Edgar wouldn’t dare run it.

The headline read “What Idiot Changed the Chivas Regal Package?” To his credit, Bronfman saw the benefits of the brashness and self-mocking tone and, to make a long story short, the ad ran.

The team at Doyle, Dane and Bernbach went on to change the brand’s fortune by understanding consumers and reaching them through challenges and taunts that were fun and resonated well. My favorite – “If you can’t taste the difference in Chivas Regal, save the extra two dollars.” And, the classic, “The Chivas Regal of Scotches.”

In addition to the central print campaign, the agency created a cartoon campaign, which picked up on the theme. A particularly memorable one showed a ship leaving the dock with a case of Chivas left behind. The caption read, “They’ll be back. They forgot the Chivas.”

Did the creativity translate into brand sell? According to the Pacult book, when DDB took over in 1962, the brand was selling around 135,000 cases. By 1979, sales had risen to 1.1 million.

All I can close with is a rewording of another great Bernbach ad – “Mama Mia, that’s effective advertising.”

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Chivas Gin?

No, there’s no such thing. But the idea almost got me fired.

I read in Drink Spirits that they selected a Scottish gin among the best new spirits introduced at Tales of the Cocktail. Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin joins Hendricks as Scottish made. The brand is made from the traditional botanical mix plus distinctly Scottish botanicals.

So here’s the Chivas gin story.

When I ran new products at Seagram, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the tequila postings, filling gaps in the portfolio was a top item on the agenda. Oh sure, we had the top seller in domestic gin but with the exception of Boodles, we did not have an imported brand to compete with Beefeater’s, Tanqueray, Bombay and others.

Our research revealed that a strong overlap in preferences existed among scotch and gin drinkers. A scotch drinker was most likely to drink gin as a second choice and vice versa.

Based on this insight and lots of concept development work, my friend Sam Ellias recommended a Chivas Gin. Before I could say a word, he quickly added that it would not be Chivas Regal Gin, but rather, a gin from Chivas Brothers. The brand would use the Chivas heritage of distilling expertise and skill and apply it to a “white goods” product. Further, his research showed that attitudes toward Chivas Regal Scotch itself improved as a result of the more contemporary gin brand idea. Trust me, at that time, Chivas Regal could use all the help it could get.

I was convinced.

At the next new products review meeting we put the idea on the table for discussion and approval to proceed to the next development stage. There was strong support but something wasn’t right. Those in the room with doctorate degrees in “Owner Anger Detection” (OAD) became uneasy. I couldn’t understand it but knew enough to drop the subject based on instinct.

But not Sam Ellias.

A number of years later when I was running marketing and he was in charge of new products, he brought up the subject of a gin by Chivas Brothers once again. Not only was the research even more compelling but he also found a name that made the product clearly by Chivas. All he wanted was a real world test market with an action standard that if this gin product failed to improve Chivas’ sales, the idea would be dropped. Reasonable.

While I still didn’t have a PHD in OAD, I had a Master’s and strong survival instincts. I approached the subject gingerly and discussed it with a family confidante/consultant to gauge the reaction. Instead of debating the merits or concerns, he must have gone to the head owner complaining about the idea.

The next thing I know, I get a poison pen email from the owner, the content of which I will never forget:

If I ever hear the words Chivas and gin used again in the same sentence, heads will roll, starting with yours.

This missive came from the same office that had pushed such brilliant new product ideas as Von Konig Silberwasser (I think it was supposed to be a vodka), Bourbon Street Bourbon (billed as a New Orleans style bourbon, whatever that is), and my personal favorite, Chivas Danu, whose relationship to scotch continues to elude me.

Despite the amused reaction from my management, who assured me not to be concerned, the dispatch rankled me and I avoided new products and Sam for some time afterward.

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