CMO Chats with Edward Pilkington, Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer at Diageo North America

Ortus Chats


Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer | Diageo North America

Edward Pilkington, Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer of Diageo North America talks to The Ortus Club‘s Flandra Sadiku about the evolving consumer landscape, maintaining sustainable financial, natural, and social capital for businesses, and shaping possibilities with marketing.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Supporting communities to promote inclusion and diversity
  • Marketers creating social impact with responsible strategies
  • Maintaining the fundamentals of marketing while adapting to trends and innovation
  • Staying ahead of the competition by knowing what your brand is and what you stand for


What does your company do?

At Diageo, we sell premium alcoholic beverages and some non-alcoholic beverages, with a lovely brand called Seedlip. We’re in the beverage and alcohol space. Our purpose as an organisation is to celebrate life every day and everywhere. It’s about helping people worldwide when they come together with their friends, families, and loved ones to enjoy life while responsibly enjoying some of our brands.

As the CMO in your company, what is your main marketing focus currently?

My main focus as the CMO here in North America is to make sure that we keep recruiting new consumers to our brands. So that’s a primary focus, which is a basic key focus for all marketers—we’ll grow the business by recruiting new consumers, so that’s the first big priority.

Another big priority is portfolio management. Making sure that we have a large portfolio of brands, from big Canadian whiskey brands like Crown Royal to our tequilas, like Don Julio, to Johnnie Walker, whisky, scotch, etc. We have a fantastic portfolio of large brands, from big to smaller ones. I make sure that we manage that portfolio effectively, make the right resource decisions across that portfolio in terms of investment, and make the right choices when buying that portfolio.

Another big priority is progressive marketing: Always looking at what we need to do in this world that we live in to make sure people want to buy our brands, going back to the piece about how we recruit consumers to our brands. Then clearly, there’s also a big piece now about the world we live in around corporate sustainability. It’s about sustainability in terms of how we manage the world’s resources—we use a lot of water, nature, the Earth, the forest, and wood for our barrels. What we do around diversity and inclusion, as well as in society, is that we’re active in our communities and how we operate. So that’s a big area of importance as well.

Can you tell me about a particularly innovative or successful marketing campaign your team has recently executed?

We are on Crown Royal, and we’ve just done a program where we just had our first-ever Super Bowl spot, which was quite a big moment for us. Why was it big? Crown is our biggest brand, as I just mentioned, and it’s very strong in the US and Canada. Crown is all about generosity. It started in 1939 as a gift from the Canadian people to the then Queen and King of England, who were visiting Canada. So our heart is about generosity. With this, our ad featured Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. We did a whole integrated program about the importance of saying “thank you” in the world and how the world will be a better place if people say “thank you”.

We had a big teaser campaign leading up to it where we were kind of teasing Dave to get the idea of saying thank you and showing gratitude. Then, finish with a spot in the Super Bowl—which was about thanking Canada because the brand is from Canada. It referenced all these amazing things that have come from Canada on a day that is all about America (the Super Bowl). We, as a brand that is very big in America, are thanking Canada. It worked well, was interesting, and was brilliantly delivered by Dave.

If you say recently, that’s very much in my mind because it was only about three months ago. So, I feel good about that. I feel really good about what we do at Crown Royal because it’s one of our best-positioned brands. All that we do ladders up to this positioning of generosity, which is cool.


What are your biggest marketing challenges at the moment?

It’s a competitive world. All categories are getting more competitive, so you have to stay on top of your game. A lot of people will talk about digital media, data, staying on top of that, and how you participate. I feel pretty good about what we do, but we have to keep looking ahead. I think all businesses are looking at Web3 and what that means. There’s a whole piece about digital data, Web3, that sort of area, and how you use that to reach consumers and recruit consumers. There’s also an understanding, which is very relevant in our industry, of how brands stay very relevant in culture. Making sure your brands are relevant in culture is extremely important as well. So I’d say those are some big areas of focus for us at the moment.

How does your company stay ahead of its competitors in terms of marketing?

We stay ahead by, one, making sure we’ve got brands that are brilliantly positioned so we know what our brand stands for. Two, we are clear, and this is the basics of marketing, about who our consumers are. Then, we target and reach them effectively through the basic principles of mental and physical availabilities. We reach them with the right messaging, which can ideally drive the purchase. We show up well in culture since, in our category, you’ve got to kind of have that cool factor if you are a brand that has that degree of credibility around you and is a brand that people want to be seen with—it’s so critical.

So, we know that with our brands. There’s a bigger piece of just making sure our brands are mentally and physically available so that we are top of mind with delivering the right content and the right messaging. We’re commercially savvy, and it’s important that we show up in the right channels at the right price. It’s key, as well, for you to show up there and how that links to how we show up online, etc. It’s back to basics: making sure you show up in the right place, you’re top of mind, you’re building awareness of your brand, your messaging is on point, and you know how the brand shows up in the culture. If you do that, you’ve got a pretty good chance.

“It’s back to basics: making sure you show up in the right place, you’re top of mind, you’re building awareness of your brand, your messaging is on point, and you know how the brand shows up in the culture. If you do that, you’ve got a pretty good chance.”

What does the future of marketing look like?

It will keep evolving because the world keeps evolving. I’d say marketing is so much more interesting now than it was 10 or 15 years ago because of our ability to reach consumers. 15-20 years ago, you were still reaching consumers, essentially, through home TV, and the channels have changed so much now. There’s just so much more. The greater ability to reach consumers with the right messages through different channels and how you do that is interesting.

The evolving media space, technology, and how you keep on top of technology are key. But the basic principles remain the same: you need to make sure your brand is relevant, it resonates with consumers, the way you position it is right, the way you communicate it, and how you show up. The basics are in the right place. That’s important. Some of those fundamentals—your pricing, how you show up in store, all that sort of stuff—remain the same, and they will do so going forward.

I think the key thing is to keep in touch with the ever-evolving world that we live in. You have to know what’s going on, what the big trends are out there, and how consumers see your brand as the next generation comes through, and understand the next generation is different from the previous generation. Keep on top of the marketing trends, consumer shifts, and the dynamics that are going on. Being insightful. All marketers have to be brilliantly insightful, understand what’s happening, and understand the different consumer cohorts they’re talking to. I’d say some of the fundamental principles are good, but you just have to keep on top of what’s happening out there in the world, be it consumer trends, technology trends, cultural trends, or all of that. If you stay on top of that, you’ll be in a good place.

How does your company integrate sustainability into its overall marketing strategy?

Sustainability is really important to us. We have what we call our society 2030 goals, which are goals we’ve set that we will achieve by 2030. It’s critical, I’d say, for an organisation to move from being just focused on financial capital and shareholder returns. I think that our investors want more than just that sort of financial return; they want to look at the role that we play in society. So there’s financial capital, natural capital, and social capital.

Our natural capital is our manufacturing footprint and how we show up in the world. There’s a lot we’re doing around water usage to think about the amount of water used in terms of making beverages. There’s a lot to learn about the role of land. The beer we make for Guinness comes from barley, a lot of wheat goes into our vodka, and we use grapes for Ciroc, vodka, et cetera. We use very natural resources to make our brands, and we have to be very conscious of how they’re coming from the land and how we make sure that we’re looking after the land. And, as I said, think about forests and wood, which are so critical for the environment. We use a lot of wood for our barrels for whiskey and rum. So, what are we doing about that? For example, on Bulleit Bourbon, we’ve just planted a million trees, and we’re going to plant another million trees and then plant another million trees. This is to make sure that we are putting back as much, if not more, than we take out.

On social capital, we’re making sure that, as all good businesses do, we turn up in the communities in the right way. A big part of that is around diversity. So, supporting diverse communities—the communities in which we operate and where we have community centres—is important. Being a really active member of the community and building social capital is important.

Then, the final one has three big areas of focus. One is about diversity in general and inclusion, and that starts with us as an organisation. We aspire to be as diverse as possible because if our business looks like the world out there, then we will be better marketers and a better business for that, frankly. Inclusion, diversity, and supporting communities. We’re very diverse, and we get a lot of recognition for that sustainability. Back to our talk about land, resources, water, grain to glass, how we show up, as well as Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions: these are all really important. So there’s a big piece about that.

The final one that links to the social pieces for us is responsibility. We’re aware that we sell beverage alcohol, and we want people to enjoy our brands but to do so responsibly. It’s very important that we get the message about the importance of people enjoying our brands responsibly. Our industry has been around for thousands of years. We want to be around for thousands of more years. So we have to make sure we learn that message.

What is the role of the CMO in one word? Why?

The word that comes to mind is possibilities. In many respects, as Chief Marketing Officer, I say to my team, “You spend your days with one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow”. Obviously, you have to be helping deliver performance in the business. You’re a critical person in terms of performance delivery, making sure the brands have great brand plans, the teams are executing the plans, and you’re delivering performance. But you have to put one foot in the future. That is about making sure you’re shaping the portfolio, you’re driving agendas like sustainability, you’re aware of the big trends and what’s happening, you’re looking at big trends, you’re on top of that, and really shaping that next level of possibility. That’s it. If I had to think of one word, it’d be about possibility and shaping possibility.

And if they say, What do you do? You spend one foot in making sure you’re delivering now in a brilliant way. But maybe with the other foot, you slam the other foot down more heavily because it’s probably really shaping the future for the brand portfolio and the organisation.

What career advice would you like to share with other marketing leaders?

We’re lucky to be able to do what we do; it’s fantastic. We have the ability to increasingly do good in the world, do it the right way, and set the role that we play. Each brand and each business need to understand the role they play in the world. Our purpose is about celebrating life every day and everywhere. If our brand can be a part of that and be enjoyed responsibly, then we’re doing our bit.

If we can help communities and do a little bit in the world, then we’re in a good place. Marketers can make an impact in the world. The bottom line is that business is important and makes the world go around. You need money to circulate and all that basic stuff. It’s doing it in a way where marketers can help provide brands that people can enjoy, which can be at the heart of a good time for those consumers. If we can put back into the world that well, at the same time, we’ve got a brilliant role, and we’re quite privileged.

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