Diageo India's Julie Bramham has her glass full
- Diageo India's chief marketing officer Julie Bramham oversees innovation for the brand’s wide range of award-winning alcobev portfolio
- Her biggest learning experience has come from the time she spent working on Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker and London dry gin brand Gordon’s
British-born Julie Bramham knew right from her early 20s that working in the alcoholic beverage (alcobev) space was her calling. While studying business management at Leeds Beckett University, Bramham had to work for a year with Mitchells & Butlers—one of the largest operators of restaurants, pubs and bars in the UK—as part of her course. Bramham, chief marketing officer and executive committee member of Diageo India, spent that “sandwich year", as it’s called in British parlance, driving around northern England developing concepts for pubs. That was in 1996-97, when branded concept pubs were becoming popular in the UK.
Bramham had such a great year helping pubs with everything from gaming to themes, that when she finished her course at Leeds and was offered a job at pub operator Marston’s, she didn’t need much prodding to join. But it would not be until mid-1999 that she would find her true home within the alcobev industry—at the world’s largest distiller, Diageo, which, in turn, runs India’s largest alcobev firm, United Spirits Ltd.
Bramham, 44, will complete 20 years with Diageo in June. That’s an unimaginably long time in this era, where working in the same company for even five years is considered wearisome. “Many people, including me, jaw-drop when you say you’ve been with one company for 20 years. It’s not so common nowadays. But I feel like I’ve changed roles within Diageo every two-and-a-half years, largely because that’s the way the business has moved. And I still find myself challenged, inspired and excited. This move to India, for instance, is completely different. There are many similarities to what I had been doing before but in a completely different context. So it’s like starting again," says Bramham, sitting in a conference room at the United Spirits office at UB City in central Bengaluru.
When she joined Diageo, it had only been two years since the company had been recreated as a merger between hospitality and realty conglomerate Grand Metropolitan and stout beer maker Guinness. Since then, Diageo has come a long way: from acquiring brands like Captain Morgan, divesting non-core food assets like Burger King and Pillsbury, to investing £1 billion (around ₹9,353 crore now) in Scotch whisky production in 2012 and announcing that it was picking up a majority stake in United Spirits the same year. Bramham has been with the company, and witnessed it evolve, through several such milestones.
She joined the company in its Guinness division and worked in a sales role for a couple of years before moving into marketing. Just as she changed departments, the company’s structure altered, with the Guinness and spirits businesses merging. Since then, Bramham has continued to work with spirits. Before moving to India, she was the general manager for innovation for two years. She has been actively involved in the branding and marketing efforts for several of Diageo’s iconic global spirits brands. The biggest learning experience though, she says, has come from the time she spent working on Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker and London dry gin brand Gordon’s.
Johnnie Walker, a brand that needs no introduction to much of the world, gave her a perspective of what it’s like to work with a big global brand. Bramham was the global marketing manager of Johnnie Walker from mid-2009-11. Yet, it’s the experience with Gordon’s gin, with its much smaller target audience, a decade ago that is close to her heart.
“When you’re part of a big global brand (like Johnnie Walker), you have other people contributing. When you’re managing a smaller local brand, as I was with Gordon’s, you’re sort of doing everything, from creating advertising, innovation, the lot. Maybe my favourite job so far in Diageo was when I was marketing director of the gin portfolio. This was 9-10 years ago and the category was just really starting to feel vibrant, but hadn’t yet exploded in Europe when I started. By the time I finished (with that role), the category was on fire and growing at 30-40%," she says.
The most fun she has had working with a brand so far, however, has been with Captain Morgan rum, for which she was marketing director from 2014-16. “Captain, as the brand is known within the company, lends itself to fun and can be integrated rather easily into local culture," says Bramham. Around five years ago, for instance, she and her fellow marketers at Diageo in Europe were trying to figure out how to secure visibility in Spanish local culture. An election for the post of mayor was coming up in the southern city of Seville. The Captain was put forward as a nominee, his manifesto was published, and billboards around the town propped up asking people to “Vota al Capitan".
Another Captain campaign she counts as memorable was associated with the English Premier League. In 2016, the Leicester City Football Club, which had never won the league, seemed to be having the most incredible season and was inching to the top of the table. The company launched limited-edition bottles of Captain Morgan, with the picture of club captain Wes Morgan on them instead of the original Captain Morgan mascot. Diageo sold the bottles mainly in Leicester, with the tag line, “there’s only one Captain".
Now that she is marketing director for Diageo’s Indian arm, will she still be able to get that creative with marketing and advertising campaigns? India doesn’t allow alcobev companies to directly advertise their brands. And that’s not the only challenge when it comes to alcohol in India, where industry growth has been hampered by several policy changes over the past few years. Moreover, it is a male-dominated space.
Bramham, though, is optimistic both about living in India and working in the Indian alcobev space. She remembers receiving a call a year ago from John Kennedy, Diageo’s Europe, Turkey and India president, saying the company was looking at a load of talent moves, and moving her to India was under consideration. Her reaction, she recalls, was, “Wow, I’ve never been to India and I don’t know anything about our business there, apart from the fact that it’s huge." She flew to Bengaluru, met the company’s India managing director and CEO, Anand Kripalu, and got a feel of the city. Before accepting the offer, she visited Bengaluru once more with her husband—who also works at Diageo—and their two children.
“We felt this is a fascinating country to be in. Just brilliant in terms of how dynamic it is, the future potential, the economic growth, the people, the culture, the richness, everything. We fell in love with the opportunity; professionally, it was a brilliant new challenge, and, personally, it just felt like a really exciting step to take," she says. Although campaigns like the Captain’s mayoral nomination are, obviously, not permitted in India, Bramham is looking forward to using packaging and in-store marketing as a creative canvas instead.
She has only been in India for six months but she has already been “Bengalurued" to some extent. Like most in the city, Bramham and her family have started relying on e-commerce delivery apps like Swiggy, BigBasket, Amazon and Flipkart. In fact, she says, the e-commerce service in the city is much better than in the UK. She also doesn’t particularly miss the cold, bleak, grey skies of the UK in January and February. Her children love the Bengaluru weather too, and enjoy certain aspects of the city, such as being able to go swimming after school. But there are some very British elements that the family misses: a big supermarket, The Scout Association and gravy.
For the moment, however, she only sees two challenges in India. From a professional standpoint, her biggest challenge, she says, is understanding the tapestry of culture and what consumers here want. Her personal challenge is something all Bengalureans will empathize with—navigating the city’s traffic-logged roads. Choosing to live close to her children’s school in north Bengaluru means Bramham gets in really early to work, and still ends up with a one-and-a-half-hour commute on the way back.
One point on which she, and Diageo, are not willing to compromise is diversity and inclusion. The company’s Europe and US business is fairly evenly split in terms of gender ratios. Its marketing team in India is also split 50-50, while the executive committee is 30% female. Overall too, Diageo is progressing rapidly in India, she says.
Her advice to young women in the country who are thinking of joining the industry would be to “please do it". “It’s a fun industry, it’s highly social, and there are huge possibilities for what to do with the brands here," she