Jean Christophe Coutures, Chairman and Chief Executive of IDL/Pernod Ricard, a man with a mission, spends much of his time travelling.
He travels to espouse ‘the cause’ and that cause is Jameson Irish whiskey.
“Yesterday I was in Asia and Hong Kong,” he explains, “The week before, Poland and Russia and the week before that, South Africa.”
His quest is to ‘globalise’ the brand alongside other IDL products and so he’s making it his business to meet IDL’s various teams to get to know the brands personally and discover how to accelerate their sales around the globe.
The 50 year-old Bordeaux native replaced Anna Malmhake and has been in the post less than six months. He joined Pernod Ricard in 1997 and spent the next 18 years working for the company in France, Asia and – for the last six years – Australia, where he served as Chairman and Chief Executive of the group’s wine division.
“I’ve always been excited by Jameson as a brand and Ireland as a country,” he recalls, “Back in 1997 IDL was an iconic company led by Richard Burrows.
“Before 2000, we’d a French portfolio with Ricard products doing well, but Jameson was the group’s flagship in terms of export markets so we focused on this.
“It was one of the first export brands that Pernod Ricard developed so quickly and strongly back in the 90s.”
Jean Christophe has an affinity with Ireland. When he was much younger, he played golf and came to Ireland every Summer. He also loves rugby and frequently came over for the France/Ireland internationals.
“This country is a bit special for me,” he confides, “Of all the countries I’ve been traveling in when I was younger, Ireland has been the most enjoyable.”
Chequered domestic market for whiskey
Domestic Irish whiskey sales have had a chequered history over the last few years with the country hit severely by the 2009 crisis.
“Clearly there’s been a slowdown in both the off- and on-trade” he observes, “but over the last two years we’ve seen the market coming back to growth.”
IDL did indeed have a good year here last year. Jameson sales were up 8% as on-trade spirits sales here evinced 2% growth.
“What I’d see in the on-premise situation is people drinking less but better” he explains, “so there’s now a ‘connoisseur-type’ buying whiskey and gin.”
But just how things have gone in the last six months in particular remains less certain.
“It’s too early to call,” he says, “The Q1 numbers were very positive so we don’t see any reason why it will slow down.
“The domestic market was growing by 2% and that’s before the Christmas sales which are critical to the second quarter.
“The Irish whiskey category in Ireland continues to grow and be dynamic as does the gin category with new brands and new trends around gin,” he says before adding, “We’ve the market leader in CDG and Beefeater, but it’s still a bit too early to call on Christmas sales.”
Expanding the Jameson brand through innovations such as Black Barrel, Caskmates and the Whiskey Makers series – has gone well for IDL.
Caskmates rolled out to 10 markets in June 2015, sold 100,000 cases in its first year and was voted one of top four spirits innovations in the US last year.
“This year we’ll be rolling it out in 15 or 20 more markets and anticipate continuing growth.
“On top of that, we’re rolling out Black Barrel, a connoisseur product, in the US, Russia, South Africa and Ireland where people are already familiar with Irish whiskey.”
The Whiskey Makers Series too plays a driving role for the Jameson brand.
“A limited-quantity product globally, it’s doing so well that some countries are already out of stock,” he says.
Unstintingly, he credits his predecessor Anna Malmhake for coming up with the idea for these brand extensions.
“She thought it important for Jameson people to be able to tell the Jameson story so she went back through the archives to look at the brand’s story to reproduce in premium expressions of the whiskey.
“Everything we do is anchored in the brand history and brand truth. So the production team proposed some ideas of which those three – The Distiller’s Safe, The Cooper’s Croze and the Blender’s Dog – were the ones found to be the most relevant.”
Importance of domestic approval
Even though domestic sales returned to growth recently, Irish whiskey sales here have been comparatively disappointing for an international exporter like IDL/Pernod Ricard.
So perhaps the above brand extensions coupled with the introduction of a host of new craft whiskeys (as well as the growth in tourism and the rise in popularity of brown spirit cocktails) have helped this growth in domestic sales?
“The Irish whiskey category is the largest spirit category in Ireland” he responds, “It’s one of our greatest export successes so it’s important to bring a lot of the line extensions and innovations to the Irish consumer first alongside Powers, Redbreast and Midleton Very Rare.
“Any time we launch a new whiskey we always start with Ireland. The response of the consumer here is key so we monitor feedback before launching it onto the international stage. Here at home, value has been growing at a higher pace than volume and I think it’s to do with this tradition of introducing new products, so we intend to continue doing that.”
Jean Christophe’s vision for IDL continues to be that of transforming Jameson into a true global brand, “…. even more so. It’s important to develop Asia and India – the largest whisky market in the world,” he explains, “Markets like China, Korea and Japan are very important to us and we think that Jameson could deliver strong growth in those markets which will be a way for us to open the Irish whiskey categories.”
Africa is also an important region for IDL as is South America where the market to date for Jameson has been small.
“It will be an exciting opportunity in years to come and I’ll be traveling there to develop these markets.”
If he’s taken two lessons from his time as Pernod Ricard Winemakers’ Chairman & Chief Executive it’s this: “Especially in the wine category, we should always insist on quality and value. One can take two routes: one is to minimise costs in producing wine but my take on wine is that quality is everything and we should never compromise on quality of product. Even in recessions and downturns one should never compromise on quality.
“The second is that innovation is critical. If you don’t innovate, you’re likely to go backwards.”
The Irish bartender
Having had a chance to absorb some of Ireland’s pub culture Jean Christophe believes that among its key strengths are its bartenders.
“They’re very creative and open-minded and can listen to the consumer and bring a lot of good ideas to the bar,” he believes, “There’s a growing cocktail culture developing (rather than drinking whiskey neat or on ice). That’s thanks to bartenders and the cocktails which they create and which are consumed in Irish pubs.
“I travel a lot and I’m always quite impressed to see the diversity and quality of the Irish pub and the creativity of the bartenders who’re always interacting with consumers which doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”