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Monday, May 20, 2024

The age of authenticity

When brands spout values, it’s what they do, not what they say, that counts, writes Stoli Group CEO Damian McKinney

This past decade has been a particularly unstable period. Contributing to this is the absence of leadership in many of the highest offices around the globe. Given this vacuum, businesses and their leaders need to step-in to provide the leadership that is lacking. Furthermore, this must be done through actions, not merely words.

The values espoused by today’s brands have become paramount to employees and consumers. Consumers increasingly care about a “better for you” product. They are motivated by mindful consumption, quality, transparency and sustainability. Consumers want to connect with “authentic brands”. They also want to see brands that take quick, decisive action to correct wrongs, support vulnerable people and communities, and to advocate on their behalf on pressing issues such as the climate crisis and equality.

Many businesses talk persuasively about values but then ignore them when choosing between these values and the short-term bottom line. Yet truly authentic brands connect to values in an intrinsic, passionate and meaningful way. So much so that the brand identity is deeply intertwined with their core values. In turn, action to defend or support those values is what drives the greatest brands of our lifetime.

Conversely, when many Western businesses, including leading drinks companies, were slow to pull out of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine despite the public outcry over the war, we saw what happens when businesses fail to act. As the country subsequently spiraled rapidly from gangster kleptocracy to brutal Orwellian oppression in the space of a few weeks, there was still a delayed response. Will historians look on the huge withdrawal of Western businesses from Russia this year as a turning point in them acting on their values, or will it simply be seen as a one-off. I hope the former but fear the latter.

For our part, I was and remain determined that Stoli will provide leadership when it is so lacking from many in high office. The invasion of Ukraine was a defining moment for our business, with Stoli determined to take fast action to support Ukraine. This included making sure our team in Ukraine was safe, whether employees, partners and distributors. We quickly mobilized financial, emotional and practical support for them as our top priority. It also meant providing financial support to a leading charity feeding the huge numbers of displaced Ukrainian.

We also reopened in Ukraine quickly. Over the summer I visited distributors, drink stores, bar owners and other partners in Kyiv. It was a moving experience: they truly are the spirit of resistance. Too few Western businesses have returned, and it is having a dire effect on the Ukrainian economy, which has shrunk by over 35 percent since the invasion. When I visited Kyiv (below), I was struck by the many people I met and their sincere gratitude and appreciation for a business that was standing up for them.

Beyond that, this year we doubled down on our ongoing Liberate Your Spirit  campaign, which highlights how people acting together can bring positive changes and our support for them. This autumn we have an amazing looking limited-edition bottle, featuring work from prominent designer Jason Naylor. His distinctive artwork on our bottles is themed around “equality”, “kindness”, “love” and “peace” – words that strongly reflect our values. Its colorful and glow-in-the-dark design is deliberately in contrast to the current austere and uncertain times.

I would urge leaders to make sure their brands establish and follow intrinsic, meaningful values that speak to the essence of their identity. So that when they, as an organisation, are challenged to take a stand on the biggest issues of our lifetimes whether it be the climate crisis, protecting democracy and/or defending fundamental rights, that they take action as it is embedded in their existence.








Damian McKinney
Damian McKinney
Damian McKinney, Global CEO, Stoli Group. Damian has been in his latest role since October 2020 but is no stranger to the alcohol industry. In 1999, he founded global consultancy McKinney Rogers and was subsequently awarded Keeper of the Quaich for both his role in the development of Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand, and his services to the Scotch Whisky industry. In his earlier career, he was a Royal Marine. He authored the business book ‘The Commando Way’. www.stoli-group.com

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