With bars shuttering worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, liquor distillers lost significant avenues through which to sell their spirits in 2020. Brown-Forman, the 151-year-old distiller of Jack Daniels whiskey and other spirits, countered the crisis by promoting its “digital shelf,” an initiative to make product images, videos, and other content available to retail partners and distributors.
Dubbed BAR+ (for brand, asset, resources), this strategy helped Brown-Forman grow e-commerce sales by triple digits, albeit from a small base, according to Nielsen data. “We accelerated projects already under way to make us competitive in the e-commerce and digital marketplace,” says Tim Nall, Brown-Forman CIO and advanced analytics officer, who drove the digital shelf initiative
Quick pivots to ensure businesses remain successful played out in every industry as organizations raced to maintain and grow connections with customers via digital channels.
“Consumers already in the habit of interacting often with many digital touchpoints have predictably gone all in with relative ease as brands supercharge the digital facets of the experience,” according to Forrester Research’s June note about digital customer experience (CX) and design trends. From virtualizing customer engagements to curbside and home deliveries, companies now routinely weave together physical and digital experiences.
Fortifying the digital shelf
This blend of physical-plus-digital was critical for Brown-Forman. Previous migrations to SaaS solutions from Google, Salesforce.com, and Workday left the company well positioned from an employee experience and business operations perspective when the coronavirus hit the US in March 2020. Moreover, the company had already swapped its desktops for laptops, which enabled 5,000 workers quickly adapt to work from home. “We felt we were ready to go,” Nall says.
But the digital shelf was a different story and senior leaders quickly realized there was much work to be done to solidify its virtual branding and go-to-market capabilities for e-commerce. Brown-Forman had long shared digital images of its content with retail partners and distributors via Google Drive and Gmail, a laborious process that resulted in a lot of back-and-forth, Nall says.
And with the bulk of shopper journeys routing to online channels during COVID-19, the company had to do more to accommodate partners eager to serve consumers.
Working with the marketing department, IT sped up BAR+ to make digital images of spirits displayed on shelves and endcaps available to partners online. It procured a digital asset management system from Tenovos, which stores brand content for the likes of Amazon.com, Lockheed-Martin, and others in the cloud.
Brown-Forman also worked with Salsify, a provider of product information management software, and digital CX design consultancy Tahzoo to implement and promote its digital shelf via distribution partners such as online liquor store Drizly.
The work helped Brown-Forman “put its best foot forward in digital” as it sought to stand out in a competitive market disrupted by COVID-19, says Nall. The company is expanding this digital shelf to the UK, Germany, and other countries over the next 12 months.
To extend its success in digital channels, Brown-Forman has created an integrated marketing communications organization — a sort of an omnichannel group — to accommodate consumers’ preferences for shopping online and via mobile devices.
COVID-19 helped IT land seat at executive table
Retailers tend to measure success in increased revenue. While Brown-Forman’s fiscal 2021 performance of netting 3% sales growth suggests its digital shelf provided a nice sales lift, another factor underscores the value of the IT department’s strategic work.
In July, Brown-Forman President and Chief Executive Officer Lawson Whiting elevated Nall to the senior executive leadership team, joining peers in finance, human resources, and marketing in occupying a seat at the executive table.
The promotion underscores Whiting’s “open-mindedness” and recognition of the role technology plays in the company’s success, says Nall.
“It highlighted how important tech is or should be to the overall success of companies,” Nall says. He adds that technology, which facilitates everything from financial transactions to enabling employees to collaborate, is just as critical as the production and commercial aspects of the business.
On that score, Nall is bringing his department’s data science skills to bear on analyzing the impact of promotions on sales performance. This includes cross-referencing information about how its brands are performing at partners such as Drizly — down to the precise quantities in consumers’ online shopping baskets — with external data feeds from sources such as Nielsen’s research.
“A lot of it is correlation versus causation,” Nall says. “But if we don’t get insights out of it, it’s just ones and zeros.”