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CMO Q&A: How Ex-Coke Marketer Is Adjusting to Life at Beam

Rebecca Messina swapped bourbon for Coke nearly a year ago when she left a 22-year career at Coca-Cola Co. to assume the top global marketing job at Beam Suntory, whose brands include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Pinnacle vodka and Sauza tequila.

Ad Age recently sat down with her at Beam’s new downtown Chicago headquarters to find out how she is changing marketing at the liquor company and how her friend and former Coke colleague Wendy Clark took the news when Ms. Messina picked Leo Burnett over Ms. Clark’s agency, DDB, to lead creative advertising on Jim Beam.

Ms. Messina, who is the company’s senior VP-global chief marketing officer, also discussed Beam Suntory’s new multi-year sponsorship of the Chicago Cubs. The pact has allowed for promotions like a limited-edition release of Jim Beam “Game 7 Batch” featuring bourbon that matured the night of the Cubs’ championship Game 7 last fall. Bottles go on sale in Chicago on June 1.

Below, a lightly edited transcript.

Ad Age: How are you approaching this job?

Rebecca Messina: I came from a marketing company. This is more of a sales and commercially-driven company. Ultimately what I think Beam really wants to do is evolve to really a brand-driven company. It’s a company of great brands with a hunger and a desire — and my job is to help it become a great brand-building company.

Ad Age: How are you doing it?

Messina: These brands are wonderful liquids and we have wonderful stories, we have a wonderful heritage. I go to these distilleries, and I have family members [of brand founders] who work [with] me. You could sit for hours and listen to them. What consumer wouldn’t want to have access to that knowledge, those stories. That’s our job — our job is to take and find ways that consumers can discover those stories.

The new Cubs-branded 'Game 7 Batch' Jim Beam
The new Cubs-branded ‘Game 7 Batch’ Jim Beam Credit: Courtesy BeamSuntory

Ad Age: You recently signed a sponsorship deal with the Chicago Cubs. What does that give you?

Messina: Now [we] get to use the trademarks.

Ad Age: Does that still matter?

Messina: I think it matters in some ways, it depends on what you want to do. You can use assets you can’t use [without the sponsorship]. I think it’s important to literally show up side-by-side. It’s truly two icons sitting next to each other. Now we can actually do things in stadium, in the moment, at Wrigley Field, another icon, in a city where we have huge ambitions for our brands. This is America’s team and Jim Beam is America’s bourbon and it’s the world’s bourbon and we are not going to shy from that. It just felt like it was the most natural place to put these two icons together.

Ad Age: Do you think it’s time for the NFL to lift its ban on liquor advertising during games?

Messina: They ultimately have to decide that but I think there is certainly momentum in that direction.

Ad Age: Late last year, you moved the Jim Beam creative account to Leo Burnett, after a review that also included McCann, DDB and Ogilvy. Talk about this decision.

Messina: It was tough. They were great agencies and they each brought something different. We felt as though, in the end, Burnett, for where we are right now, was our best partner

Ad Age: Everyone had assumed you would pick DDB because of your relationship with Wendy Clark (a former colleague at Coca-Cola). Was that hard for you?

Messina: She was one of the first people to write me after we made the decision. She was gracious through the entire process. She never expected anything handed to her, ever.

Ad Age: How will Jim Beam’s marketing change?

Messina: I do think we want to see the brand get a tightened point of view, more cultural in its nature.

Ad Age: What do you mean by that?

Messina: There is a tendency for us to hero, as we should, the incredible liquid. But I think you can’t deny the way the brand has showed up for 200 years. The way it’s got a pioneering spirit. The way it came out of Prohibition and [rebuilt] a distillery in three months when everyone else was walking away from the industry. The way that when the world in the 1980s was turning to Scotch and other categories, Jim Beam believed more than ever and introduced the world to small batch [bourbon]. We are not telling those stories that are about a cultural point of view, about forward movement, about advancing America’s true spirit and what that really means. Obviously we want to ensure that the brands got global consistency, so we will really, really ensure the brand tries to show up the same everywhere around the world. That will be a big push for us. Those are the big anchors, really.

Ad Age: What is your timeline for the new campaign to debut?

Messina: Second half of this year.

Ad Age: What is your go-to cocktail?

Messina: A Jim Beam Black Old Fashioned.

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