Consumer is king, says Bacardi CEO

By: News@Northeastern


Successful companies combine product performance with consumer insights to build brand loyalty, according to Edward Shirley, president and CEO of Bacardi Limited, who spoke on Wednesday at Northeastern’s CEO Breakfast Forum. Photos by Brooks Canaday.

Edward Shirley is the pres­i­dent and CEO of Bac­ardi Lim­ited, the world’s largest pri­vately owned spirits com­pany. But when it comes to his building upon the family-​​owned company’s more than 150 years of suc­cess, he knows who’s the boss.

“The con­sumer should be the single center of our focus,” said Shirley, who joined Bac­ardi two years ago after a 33-​​year career at the Gillette Com­pany and Procter & Gamble Co. “Whether it’s razor blades or rum, suc­cess is about meeting and exceeding the expec­ta­tions of the consumer.”

Shirley dis­cussed the prin­ci­ples of good busi­ness as the keynote speaker on Wednesday at North­eastern University’s CEO Break­fast Forum. Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, in which leading CEOs share their exper­tise with audi­ences of other CEOs and senior exec­u­tives from the Greater Boston area.

In his opening remarks, Aoun cited family-​​owned busi­nesses as cen­tral to the U.S. economy’s growth, noting the research being con­ducted at Northeastern’s Center for Family Busi­ness in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness, a mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides edu­ca­tion, net­working oppor­tu­ni­ties, and sup­port to busi­ness families. 

Shirley, for his part, recounted his journey to joining Bac­ardi, dis­cussed the brand’s mar­keting cam­paigns, and empha­sized the impor­tance of con­necting with the consumer.

His cor­po­rate career began imme­di­ately after col­lege, he said, when he took a job as an inven­tory accoun­tant at Gillette. Over time, he moved up the ranks, learning all the steps to run­ning a suc­cessful busi­ness along the way. In 2005, Gillette was acquired by P&G, whose global port­folio includes a variety of beauty, grooming, and house­hold prod­ucts. Now at Bac­ardi, the global port­folio of which com­prises more than 200 brands and labels including Bac­ardi rum, Grey Goose vodka, and Dewar’s Scotch whisky, Shirley has spent his entire career deter­mined to under­stand and con­nect with consumers.

Over the years, Shirley said he’s received invalu­able feed­back from observing and engaging con­sumers where they live and shop, noting that people don’t always report their true habits in mar­keting sur­veys. He said sat­is­fying con­sumers’ func­tional needs isn’t enough, adding that the key to suc­cess is “com­bining con­sumer insights with supe­rior product per­for­mance and strong brands that build con­sumers’ trust.”

In 2012, Shirley moved from P&G to Bac­ardi, having been drawn by the company’s rich his­tory of busi­ness savvy and per­se­ver­ance, which traces back to 1862 when the Bac­ardi family pur­chased a dis­tillery in Cuba. He noted that he was inspired to help build the strategy to posi­tion Bac­ardi for con­tinued suc­cess for another 150 years.

To that end, Bac­ardi is moving for­ward with a range of new mar­keting cam­paigns. In par­tic­ular, Shirley noted that in today’s dig­i­tized society, mil­len­nials are faced with an onslaught of adver­tising from all angles; tap­ping into their craving for brand authen­ticity and strong con­nec­tion to their com­mu­ni­ties, he said, will be cru­cial to future success.

During a Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion fol­lowing his talk, Shirley fielded queries on a range of topics. When Aoun asked what traits he looks for in job can­di­dates, Shirley pointed to attrib­utes such as pas­sion for the posi­tion, the ability to work col­lab­o­ra­tively, and bringing a pos­i­tive atti­tude to the job each day.

Another person sub­mitted a ques­tion via Twitter about how the pro­lif­er­a­tion of social media is affecting sales and mar­keting. Shirley said plat­forms such as Twitter, Face­book, and Insta­gram have flipped the tra­di­tional busi­ness model on its head. “It’s about sur­rounding the con­sumer 360 degrees,” he said. “If we’re not present either where con­sumers are engaged with or want to talk about the brand, then we’re going to be left behind.”

“It’s not good enough to be ‘liked,’” he con­tinued. “If you don’t estab­lish a rela­tion­ship or con­ver­sa­tion, you won’t get any insights on what they like or don’t like about it.”