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Carmen d’Ascendis

Carmen d’Ascendis

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Brown Forman’s Carmen d’Ascendis Discusses the Nuances of Brand Relevance in a Shifting Marketing World.

Carmen d'Ascendis is an industry veteran whose deep thinking about contemporary marketing issues and keen instincts about successful global branding combine with a life-long passion for the business. With more than 20 years in a diversity of roles at Brown-Forman, one of the top 10 global spirits companies, he is a marketing leader who brings wisdom and experience to the profession. He was also named a 2012 Internationalist of the Year.

As he prepares for a new position within the company—he’s moving from Louisville, Kentucky to Brown-Forman’s European Headquarters in Amsterdam as Managing Director for Finlandia Vodka and Chambord Liquor—he shared some thoughts about growing global brands. One of the topics heading his list was relevance—a critical component of brand affinity, but one that now takes on more significance in an always-on and constantly-shared social media world. In fact, a recent Internationalist/ANA survey among INTERNATIONALIST 1000 marketers attending events this year in New York, Miami and London, showed that today’s leading concern in delivering effective marketing is “being authentic, relevant and real time.”

Carmen d'Ascendis has lived in seven cities—(Amsterdam will be the eighth)--on four continents while working in 40 countries on behalf of Brown-Forman, largely for its Jack Daniel’s brand. He knows that keeping a brand relevant is critical to any marketer; however, he also acknowledges that relevance is a moving target. (Of course, what’s relevant to a 25 year old in 2014 differs from what was relevant to a 25 year old in 2004.) For d’Ascendis, though, the role of a good marketer is to simultaneously provide ways to be relevant to tomorrow’s consumers while keeping today’s enthusiasts devoted to the brand. This can mean targeting Millennials without isolating other generational groups. Although he says a constantly-evolving, “cool” brand rarely loses its devoted fans.

He adds: “What draws someone in is not what keeps them there.” He differentiates “gateway values” that initially attract people to a brand from core “retention values” that build loyalty. “And you need both messages in the environment to keep consumers interested.” As brand fans learn more and go beyond superficial reactions they discover new layers that help them grow closer to the brand.

So how do these issues of relevance work on a complex global level with varying brand positions by country and differing levels of local marketing expertise? As a global marketing leader, one of Carmen d'Ascendis’ roles is to anticipate 3 to 5 years ahead, while his country managers are concerned about delivering cases this year and often consider how a change in their short-term communications will move more product. Success takes both experience and vision—strongpoints for d’Ascendis. He says simply: “As the ‘expression’ or relevant messaging changes, the ‘DNA’ of the brand doesn’t. Evolving the messaging to be relevant with the message of the times is essential.”

When talking to his teams around the world, he often discusses relevance in terms of the James Bond franchise of the last 50 years. “The franchise is strongest now even though there have been six different men who have portrayed Bond. Those six characters match the tenor of their time; the flawed hero of SkyFall would not have worked in the fantastical futurist time of Moonraker. Each character adapted, while keeping true to the essence of Bond.”

He adds: “What’s relevant is always evolving. Don’t protect a brand from evolution. It’s a mindset change from defense to offence.”

Another key global issue for d’Ascendis is “adopting good practice” among his teams around the world. He clearly distinguishes this from “sharing best practice”—a common industry standard. He recognizes that some his local marketers will be experimental or adventuresome, and his challenge is to encourage others to use new ideas. For him, “best practice” suggests it’s the only way of doing something and that evolution is not required. He prefers “good practice.” And he’s not interested in simply sharing such ideas, but tasking his people to actually adopt them. That brings freshness, relevanc.. ..and results.