'There was a bit of marmite about the Club Orange ads' - Britvic Ireland MD talks 'Best Bits' campaign
A marketing man to the core, Kevin Donnelly caused a storm with a sexy ad campaign for Club Orange – but insists the branded needed to get back on the public’s radar. Paul O’Donoghue meets the man putting fizz into the soft drinks company
Try and remember the most excited that you have ever seen a grown man get over a bottle of water. Then double that. Then double it again. Keep doing that for a while and you might get close to how animated Kevin Donnelly gets when he talks about Ballygowan.
The managing director of Britvic Ireland is a marketing man through and through. For the duration of our conversation, there is one recurring subject: branding. Donnelly apparently eats sleeps and breathes consumer brands.
Eyes shining and hands waving, he mentions his passion for the names of his company's minerals about a dozen times in the first ten minutes of our chat. He's so earnest in his commitment to brands he could be describing one of his children.
"In Britvic we almost have the brands on loan," he says lovingly. "We're currently the Britvic crew that are managing the brands, but we'll pass them onto the next generation." Later, he adds: "A brand is a living, breathing thing. As the brand owner, you are at the centre of all of this, making sure that the direction of the brand is very clear."
Despite his preference for a focus on brands, lately at Britvic Ireland Donnelly and the rest of the management team has had to focus on costs. The company, a subsidiary of UK firm Britvic and a significant employer in Ireland, has cut its staff roster in half since 2008. Worker numbers dropped from 1,100 to 550 in 2013 as sales of the company's flagship brands suffered during the recession.
"That's not easy, doing that to colleagues," Donnelly says, looking slightly grim for a moment. But he bounces back: "But we needed to do that to stay competitive, we needed to do that to adjust our cost base so we could continue to innovate, continue to invest and now we're through that cycle now and the last three years have been really positive."
The Dubliner was brought in shortly after UK-based Britvic bought the soft drinks portfolio of Irish drinks giant C&C in 2007 for €249m. The division, which had turnover of just under €270m, gave the company access to some of Ireland's most iconic brands such as Ballygowan and Club Orange. Racking up losses during the recession (over €17m in 2010 and €12m in 2012), when Donnelly joined the business in 2008 management was faced with falling sales and the need for swinging job cuts. Britvic needed to give its brands a kick in the pants, and who better than a man who discussed brands at the family dinner table as a young lad?
"The world of retailing, the world of consumers, the world of brands, that was the environment I grew up in," he says eagerly. No prizes then for guessing what Donnelly studied in university. After completing his marketing degree and a stint in Scotland with the Irish Export Board he moved into multi-billion euro giant UK/Dutch firm Unilever, working up to the position of business unit director where he handled the company's frozen food business and perhaps its best-known brand in Ireland, HB. The work gave Donnelly an appreciation for mixing with his frontline employees.
"[If you are] doing marketing from a desk in an office you are going to lose the connection with staff and with customers," he says. "People buy the product and consume it on the go, so you have to be there."
It also gave he had chosen to continue climbing the ladder at Unilever it is likely that Donnelly would have had the opportunity to travel abroad extensively while gaining the experience needed for senior management, but, in his own words it was a one-way ticket. "You wouldn't get back for 10-15 years," he says. "You could move to Portugal or Greece and your next move could be to South America. And that's great, but I wasn't at a life stage where that suited."
He pauses, and adds: "In those multinationals you either commit to being a domestic person or you commit to being part of a group of people who move around internationally." When asked if he ever regrets not travelling as much his response is emphatic. "I don't. The job I have today gives me autonomy [as] we are a standalone unit inside Britvic plc, I have an Irish base with an international perspective."
After working with Unilever and then Dairygold for four years, Donnelly moved to Britvic, where he looked to put his stamp on the organisation with the overhaul of a number of famous brands.
He's perhaps best known for is his work with Club Orange. Donnelly was the mind behind the company's famous "The Best Bits in the World" campaign which looked to remarket the soft drink at a younger audience. Drawing on inspiration from one of the oldest marketing slogans in the book, "Best Bits" was positively built on the mantra of "sex sells".
From 2011 on ads for Club Orange started featuring attractive young women whose presence had questionable ties to a decades-old Irish carbonated orange drink. The campaign was successful, perhaps due in no small part to the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority upheld several complaints against the ads. For one of them, a promotion which showed two large oranges side by side and used the line "the best bits in the world", the body made the astute observation that the imagery of the ad was "using sexual innuendo merely to attract attention, as there was no tangible link between a pair of women's breasts and the brand Club Orange".
Donnelly looks somewhat sheepish when the campaign is mentioned, although he has little reason to. As well as boosting sales of the drink and repositioning it towards a younger audience, the campaign also helped Donnelly land the Magazine.ie 2012 Marketer of the Year award.
"Something had to be done, the brand was losing share, it was falling behind," he says. He argues that there was continuity in the advertising, pointing to the promotions Club ran with character Ron Burgundy from the movie 'Anchorman 2' and the so-called 'Fruit Whisperer' character 'El Zero', who have both featured in ads more recently and appeal to a similar audience that the "Best Bits" campaign.
"There was a bit of marmite about it," he admits. "But that was a short campaign. Even though the initial campaign had a high degree of shock value in it, that was only really to get the brand back on people's radars, we have a much longer term plan for Club. People took it for what it was, which was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I wouldn't have changed anything."
Donnelly then turns to Ballygowan, which he eagerly discusses for the next ten minutes. The product has recently launched in the UK, and Donnelly says it's on track to sell about 20 million litres by the end of the year, slightly under half of what it sells in Ireland. "Its pretty damn good from a standing start," he says.
"Ballygowan is by far and away, by far and away, the biggest Irish water brand. I take it as a source of personal pride to see it available on the shelves, in the cinemas, in the gyms of Great Britain. We're ahead of where we thought we would be."
Right on cue, as the interview ends and Donnelly goes to leave, he pulls a bottle of his bag, offering - what else? - 500ml of Ballygowan water. "I insist," he grins. A true marketing man.