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By Nitin Pandey

Ahmed Rahimtoola, VP, Marketing of Allied Blenders and Distillers Pvt Ltd, says ‘Differentiate or Die’ is the mantra that drives his marketing team. Repositioning popular brands, bringing in strong consumer insights and idea-driven branding exercises are the strategies he adopts in a no-direct-advertising for alcohol scenario



Allied Blenders and Distillers Pvt. Ltd (ABD) ,a company promoted by spirits industry veteran Kishore Chhabria. ABD has successfully added exquisite brands of Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) to its product portfolio. The management team ensures that it keeps pace with changing business dynamics and global competition. It has strategically located sales offices in 15 cities across 4 zones to ensure a pan-India presence. Today, ABD is India’s 3rd largest spirits company with a portfolio comprising of some of the country’s most popular brands. Its flagship brand, Officer’s Choice, is currently the 2nd largest whisky brand in India. ABD also offers India’s 1st Grain Vodka, Class 21, which has been a hit with the youth with its new packaging and positioning. The recently launched Jolly Roger rum has made waves in the market with its Jamaican Blend. And a JV with Henkell & Co. Sektkellerei KG Wiesbaden has resulted in bringing to India Germany’s No. 1 Vodka, Wodka Gorbatschow.



Ahmed Rahimtoola, VP, Marketing of Allied Blenders and Distillers Pvt. Ltd, has played a vital role in the marketing success of the various brands under the company’s banner. A career spanning over 13 years has helped him become a key player in the Alco-bev industry. His understanding and thorough knowledge of the industry have also been fuelled by his 7-year stint with the UB group. Prior to joining UB group, he worked in the field of advertising for three years, which gave him the insight to spot an opportunity. Ahmed has a Masters in Business Administration from the Symbiosis institute of Management and HRD. He has also acquired an executive MBA from IIM, Kolkata.


Q] It is almost two decades that ABD has been operating in the Indian market. The Group came up with a new identity for the brand a few years ago. How has been the response from the market so far?

The new identity for ABD was created in 2008-09. As an organization, at that time we were going through a complete transformation phase under the leadership of Deepak Roy. There was a new management team, new brands were being launched and a new vision was set to drive the company to the next level of growth. The new identity created is a reflection of a company that is on a high growth trajectory, breaking all boundaries and a company that is strong, powerful and fearless. Since the inception of the new identity, ABD has grown from strength to strength. From being the sixth largest player in the spirits industry, we are now the third largest player in the spirits business. ABD has also been the fastest growing spirits company over the past three years and has an array of powerful brands addressing different consumer segments. The industry today sees ABD as a formidable player, which is aggressive and fearless in the marketplace.

Q] According to you, what are some of the factors that are driving the growth of the liquor industry in India?

Growth in the liquor industry is coming from the growing GDP, rising disposable income, increase in number of middle income households, declining poverty levels, increase in the acceptance of alcohol and increase in the number of women drinking.

Q] If you have to pick a few key trends of this industry in India, what would they be?

The size of the IMFL industry in India is 262 million cases, growing at 12%. India is predominantly a whisky market, with whisky contributing to 56% of the entire spirits market. Brandy, which sells predominantly in the South, contributes to 22% and is the fastest growing category. This is followed by rum with 17% salience, vodka with 3% and gin with 1%.

Q] What is the current share of ABD in the liquor industry pie in India?

ABD last year sold 16.5 million cases, thereby giving it a national market-share of 6.3%.

Q] In a very competitive environment, where do your brands stand vis-à-vis the competition?

Officer’s Choice is the second largest selling whisky in India, growing at a CAGR of 33% over the last four years. Wodka Gorbatschow is the second largest selling vodka in the segment it operates in. Class 21 is the fastest growing regular vodka brand and is the third largest selling vodka in the segment it operates.

Q] Now let’s talk about the promotional and advertising strategies of liquor brands. Since no direct advertising can be done, how have you been creating awareness about your brands?

This is always a challenging task, especially when you are launching new brands. Every category within IMFL has pre-defined codes in the consumer’s mind. For example, whisky as a category stands for success, achievement, status, masculinity and bonding. Vodka, on the other hand, is all about liberation, youth, fun, partying and socializing. The challenge (as you can’t show the product from an ATL point of view) for a new brand is to operate within these codes and still be different. However, when it comes to BTL, restrictions are very few and hence when a brand is using ATL media, it should be backed heavily by BTL initiatives (glow signs, display, POS, etc) so as to have a better connect.

Q] And, how do you create differentiation for the brands in your portfolio?

‘Differentiate or Die’ is the mantra that drives the marketing team at ABD. All our brands have their foundation on a very strong consumer insight. Let me give you two examples:

Officer’s Choice: A large part of Officer’s Choice consumers come from the lower strata of society. Research showed us that because of their humble beginnings and situation they are in, they have not had many opportunities in life to make it big, get respect or recognition. Due to their circumstances, they are pushed around, but they still want to live with pride, respect and dignity. To satiate this need, they try and do good deeds in their neighbourhood. This helps them get a little recognition and respect amongst their peers. Doing good deeds also gives them an immense sense of pride and purpose. This helped us hit upon their belief ‘Every individual’s deeds, actions and choices make them stand apart from the crowd and stand above others’. Officer’s Choice whisky identified this core need of the consumer segment and created a differentiated positioning for itself on the platform of ‘Righteousness’ while other brands were talking about success, achievement and style. So from this was born the campaign ‘Jagaiye apne andar ka officer’.

Wodka Gorbatschow: In case of Wodka Gorbatschow, the brand had to use the international platform of ‘Purity’ and make it relevant for the Indian audience. Research showed us that individuals play multiple roles in their lives. Some roles they play are because of the situation that they are in or because of their beliefs in life, for example, a lot of people believe separating the professionalism from the personal and are thoroughly professional at the workplace. They are different outside of work. Wodka Gorbatshchow used this insight to be relevant to the youth mindset, asking the youth to play as many roles as they can, but to play each role with complete purity, passion and integrity. Thus was born the campaign ‘Whoever you are, be pure’.

Q] What are some of your plans to expand the reach of the company in India?

The thrust this year is going to be the brandy category. Brandy as a category contributes to 22% of the total IMFL sales and is growing at 25%. We plan to launch two brandies – one in the semipremium and another in the premium segment. We are also launching our Premium Rum ‘Jolly Roger’ nationally this year.

Q] You have recently launched a premium variant of Officer’s Choice – Officer’s Choice Blue. How has been the response to it?

Officer’s Choice Blue is the latest entrant in our portfolio. It is a premium extension of our flagship brand Officer’s Choice. It is an intricate blend of pure grain whisky and Scottish vatted malts sourced from the Highlands and Isles. We have launched the brand in two states, Assam and Maharashtra. The response from both markets from both the trade and consumers has been very encouraging. So we plan to take the brand national.

Q] Why did you relaunch Class as Class 21?

The suffix ‘21’ gave the brand a lot more emotional connect with the TG. Twenty-one is that magical age in one’s life of which one has the best memories. Also 21 represents the 21st century. The new identity we created was inspired by today’s generation of choice – digital. We backed the new identity with immaculate packaging and a very insightful campaign on the insight – I want to be 21 forever.

Q] Finally, what was the inspiration behind your TVCM on Officer’s Choice?

The idea behind our campaign was that ‘It is the choices and actions that we take that determine whether we are true officers or not, in life’. The brand proposition is communicated through a series of three dramatic films based on real-life situations. The films show common men, faced with ‘choices’ that they come across in their day to day life and they show the true officer making the right choice in life. These films celebrate everyday victories of common men and salute the officer in them while inspiring others to follow suit and be righteous in their lives.

Q] Do online travel sites in any way impact travel agencies or companies like Thomas Cook?

I’m not sure whether we have seen much of an impact. I don’t think we were ever active in the very single point-to-point ticketing business. That is not our core area of expertise. We are more extensive with services like multi-point itinerary, integrated travel components, ground transport, food, tour escorts, etc. The online guys haven’t really gone that far because they are online and this is a high touch and high involvement category. I believe that there are a lot of mid-size travel agencies out there that have business in single point domestic ticketing and they have been hurt by the online guys.

Q] Do you see any change in the dynamics of the industry going forward? Do you think the online travel players will get into your territory?

The online guys don’t have a choice but to get into this kind of stuff, because there is no money in the simple point-to-point product. First you do it for growth, and then you do it to show people that there is money, then you raise the money and you spend it to drive more growth and then eventually you start thinking about your pockets. That’s where the online travel industry is right now. They are all scratching their heads, wondering how to get into our space and we are not quite sure that we want to go into their space. So we are charting a new territory and trying to take customization and personalization to new highs. We are trying to help people plan an entire calendar of travel because we see fragmentation of travel purchase. We are not really worried about others replicating what we offer because we took a long time to gain the equity, expertise, credibility and customer trust.

Q] You mentioned further customization of services... but taking a cue from the developed markets, the situation is pretty grim, especially the London business. So, what is the next step forward?

Business models in India and other parts of the world are completely different. The operating leverage there is very high because you have to exercise control over the entire vertical chain. In India, the business is more about brokerage and aggregation. So, we do not make anything or operate any hotel or airline. We have no assets and no operating leverage. We are just a middleman using a lot of skill and imagination to glue together something that customers can dream of. It is quite unfair to say that we are going the same way as the developed markets. Most of our European businesses are actually doing quite well despite their operating models.

Q] Will that put pressure on the Indian business in terms of more expectations and larger returns from the Indian market?

If there is an expectation, we would deliver it. Our job is to do our best. Even if that pressure wasn’t there, we would be working quite hard to do our best.

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