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Web Summit 2022: Jessica Spence (Beam Suntory)

Presented by João Tomé, Jessica Spence
Originally aired on 

Join João Tomé for Conversations at Web Summit 2022, one of the biggest tech conferences in the world — held November 2022, in Lisbon, Portugal.

In this interview, Jessica Spence, president of brands at Beam Suntory, one of the world's leading whiskey companies, explains how her company is using the Internet. We go over topics such as combining the online and offline experience, a wishlist for the future of the Internet, but also advertising online and Twitter under Elon Musk.

Web Summit

Transcript (Beta)

I'm Jessica Spence, I'm the President of Brands at Beams Suntory, that's one of the world's leading whisky companies with an incredible portfolio of brands from Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Lafroig, Beaumont, Yamazaki, I could go on.

I'm responsible for the marketing and P&L of our core strategic brands and I'm based in New York.

So we manufacture all of those brands across the world, whisky is obviously made in generally one very specific place, we have distilleries in Japan, in Kentucky, in the US, in Scotland, in France and then what I take accountability for is then also ensuring that those can be sold across the world, we're in more than 50 countries and really what is the brand building and sales model that we adopt to bring those incredible products to market.

We all live on the Internet, so it impacts every element of our business, but when I think particularly about my area and some of the shifts we've seen, one of the big outcomes of the pandemic was a dramatic increase in e-commerce and I think our awareness of how to use the Internet and digital platforms as sales channels and as community building channels, that's really where we spent a lot of time focusing, as we saw as people moved away from bars and pubs because they were closed, they were still looking to drink, they were still looking also for the kind of information that they would perhaps have found from a bartender before, so we really are leaning into how do we give people access to that information, it's a category where people are information hungry, how do we enable purchase as quickly as possible, but also how do we create engagement, connections and community, whisky is a product that people love talking about and they love meeting other people who love talking about it, so looking to the Internet as a space of creation of those tribes that collect around some of our brands, you know, who have that passionate loyalty and connect to other consumers, so curating that space has become part of what we think of as our mission.

I think some will, but I mean we're actually seeing a lot of the e-commerce numbers staying very resilient post the pandemic, so there was a question of okay, we've seen this massive rise, are people going to fall back into old behaviours, there's definitely behaviours there that have stuck and I think will continue to and that's very positive for us, I mean people have come back to bars and restaurants, I think it was embarrassingly perhaps every market across the world when you ask people what did they miss the most, bars and restaurants were in the top two, sometimes ahead of seeing your family, so there's a huge rush back to the physical world, but I think the connections they made in the digital world and some of the experiences we're able to offer at scale through the Internet, through digital platforms, people are actually really in love with and I think it's more like both, so it's yes and rather than a switch between the two.

In terms of the larger scale of the Internet, the global scenario, there's a lot of talk in terms of social media and all that, but you're just mentioning a positive aspect of those relationships, where do you see the global scenario of the Internet going right now in terms of good things, bad things?

It's an incredibly interesting time and I think it's been a big topic for everyone over the last few months particularly.

I like to be an Internet optimist, I think at its best it enables groups to connect, find information, find community, build community and creativity, but I think we have to think very hard about how are we creating the technology and the algorithms that enable that versus ones that are driven by a very pure profit motive alone in the absence of awareness of some of the collateral damage that I think that causes.

I think AI is an incredible tool, it's got incredible positives, it also when used to drive against a single-minded purpose like attention can be extremely negative and I think there's questions for everyone involved in technology, but particularly for people who are working in the field of AI who are designing algorithms to think about what are the unintended consequences of a very pure commercial drive behind an algorithm that perhaps doesn't consider some of the broader societal effects.

So I'm hopeful the Internet is realizing that, I think there is a ton of conversation happening at very senior levels around it, I don't think we've got answers yet, but I'm encouraged that I think the tone of that conversation is very different to what I saw even two years ago where a lot of the platforms simply said we just moderate, nothing to do with us.

I think there's an awareness that that simplistic view of the world has failed and they are beginning to think about different ways of acting.

What do you think the future of technology will look like?

I think it would be, sounds an odd one, I would like some really smart regulation.

I actually think that like in any technological revolution regulation lags the technology and that has happened.

I think we now need governments to go a lot deeper, employ a lot more people who understand technology in depth.

I mean it's insane. You look at the U.S., there's no Senate or House committee on technology.

So they don't know what they're dealing with.

You need governments to step up, to employ the right people, to get the right experts and to start to create the kind of regulation which will fuel a positive Internet because otherwise, particularly as a brand owner, as an advertiser, that's a place I'm not going to want my brand to be.

And there's huge positives for me if I can leverage it, but if I start to feel that's not an environment where I can have the kind of positive impact I want, I will look for other options.

So we have paused on Twitter.

We are waiting to see what happens there, but some of the early signs gave us some concerns.

So we have made that decision. I think it'll be very interesting to see, at the minute there's a lot of noise coming out of Twitter, but we're not really clear on what the direction is.

It's very well to say you want to be wonderful, the town square, free speech for everyone.

What do you mean by that?

And I think the advertisers are realizing their power and asking platforms to step up and be much more specific.

And I think that's a good thing.

I've been positively surprised by the number of people who made decisions about Twitter very fast.

Technology companies sometimes accuse brands of being slow and they don't really get it.

Well, we moved quickly this time. We moved at the speed of technology and we made a statement.

So I think the platforms are going to listen more, I hope.

I definitely feel that they need to become more constructive.

I'm optimistic about Twitter. There's lots of things about the platform I think are phenomenally positive, but it needs to be very conscious of its power.

Twitter I think is one of the most interesting platforms because its power extends beyond the platform.

If you're not on Facebook, honestly, Facebook doesn't really change your life too much.

If you're not on Twitter, Twitter still changes your life.

And the knowledge and acceptance and maturity to understand that power from the leadership is going to be critical to whether that platform survives.

So I think it's amazing like you're stopping, but you're not saying we don't want Twitter.

You're saying we want to see what you're going to present, right?

Absolutely. Yeah. And it's a question of holding people accountable.

You can put out a tweet, make a big statement, but I want to see nuts and bolts.

What does this mean for my brand? How do I know what the conversation my brand is going to show up in?

And is that a positive environment where people are going to be exposed to messages that would make them feel uncomfortable?

My brands are about bringing people together, creating communities, celebrating moments.

I'm choosy about where those brands are seen.

I pick the bars I want them to be in.

I pick the platforms I want them to be on. So I think that's the message we're trying to send.

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