TAKUMI #UNFILTERED EP.3: SANDRA SUAREZ, MOËT HENNESSY

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Mary is joined by Sandra Suarez, Influencer and Experiential Marketing Director at Moët Hennessy, where she oversees influencer marketing and consumer engagement. Sandra has led an incredibly diverse array of campaigns, ensuring that this legacy brand keeps on the pulse and maintains an emotional connection with consumers. She offers valuable insights for professionals and marketeers around the world, particularly in the context of today’s cultural landscape.

 

 

Mary: Welcome, Sandra. So excited to meet you!

Sandra: Sure, Mary, thank you so much for having me here today. I’m super excited to be talking about a topic, that in the world, in years past we would have not had the chance to discuss so I’m super excited to be here with you.

Mary: So, please do tell us something about your role at Hennessy?

Sandra: To give you a little background on my role- I am really focused on ensuring that I keep that pulse in the culture. And like you said, understanding the consumers in a deep emotional manner, which, as you see what’s happening in the world now, that is truly where we need to be as a brand. We talk a lot about being a spirit and being a liquid in a bottle, but most of the time,  it’s about more than the liquid in the bottle: ensuring that we are connecting to our consumers on a deeper level. 

 

Mary: I mean I think it’s interesting that Hennessy is such a dominant brand with all manner of diverse cultures and backgrounds…

Sandra: Absolutely, absolutely it is, we have about 42 brands in our portfolio that all speak to different cultures. I specifically work for Hennessy, so it’s really leading the influencer ecosystem for the brand and understanding not only the consumer, but also our talent that works with us, and ensuring that an old ties into our programming.

 

Mary: Why do you think influencers have become so important to your emotional engagement with consumers as much as, you know that you’ve got fabulous products with fantastic heritage, but I mean, in terms of keeping them relevant, I mean what are influencers doing that’s kind of powerful from your perspective?

Sandra: They really connect to the people that are out there, right? Everything that we do is on social media, meaning when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean the brand, I mean just people in general. They’re on social media, they’re on television; there is such a close connection between what’s happening in the world, more so than ever. So, influencers play a huge part within that connectivity that we’re looking for from the brand.

As long as they’re organic- organic and natural and that they fit into their influencers platform, that’s the only way that it works. So for us it’s really ensuring that these influencers have that reach, and that visibility that we’re looking for, for our consumers, and that their platforms fit and mirror what we’re doing with the brand.

Mary: You had an most incredible ‘Dear Destiny’ campaign, and it’s incredibly powerful. You know, AdAge said, few brands emphasise the idea of black excellence as strong as Hennessy has. Where did you get the inspiration from? Why was Nas selected as a spokesperson for the campaign?

Sandra: Nas has actually been the voice of Hennessy for over nine years, and he is one of our- what we call internally- our ‘Fab Five’ members- our true influencer macro within the brand. So that’s why he was selected. A lot of our campaigns have his voice and his image, and it’s because he is a true icon, similar to what our brand is. For us, also within the black community, we have been participating and real believers in just being so diverse with our brand… and I can give you a little background! In 1896 was the first time that we were part of the National Urban League. One of the first spirit brands.

Mary: That’s really really impressive. So you were right there, making change happen. Back in the day, properly back in the day! That’s incredible. And that heritage of course, runs really deep…

Sandra: Absolutely it does. We also participated in 1909 in the National NAACP, so we’ve really been part of the black community from the beginning. We wanted to ensure that voice continued, and that our heritage in the US was still standing next to the black community.

I can tell you another story, because there’s so much background and people don’t know that Hennessy has all of this history…

Mary: We love stories!

Sandra: In the 1950s we were one of the first spirit liquor brands to advertise in Ebony Magazine!

Mary: Well, that’s really impressive because obviously at that time, you know, with McCarthyism and in general the segregation in society in American culture, that was a very brave thing to do- I don’t mean that in any way patronising at all, because you absolutely were at the forefront of that and Ebony magazine. I mean I know a little, that it really struggled with advertising in the early days, so it’s fantastic that you were there supporting that. That kind of segways me into the whole area about the Hennessy ‘Never Stop Never Settle’ society initiative- can you tell us something about that, because that’s really hands-on, isn’t it?

Sandra: It is, and we just launched that not too long ago. It’s been out for about a month now, and the way that this started was really around ensuring that everything that we do within community ties in together. So before the Never Stop Never Settle Society kicked off, which is Empowering Entrepreneurs, we actually built grants around it. And these entrepreneurs had to apply- the application process is going to close in the next few days- so I encourage people to definitely go into our website and sign up if they can.

But before Never Stop Never Settle Society, we had ‘Unfinished Business’ and that’s really where it came from- we wanted to ensure that we were supporting our communities financially, and not only the small business owners but also entrepreneurs. When we launched ‘Unfinished Business’, which was focused around the small business owners in our community within the United States, there was a huge ask of entrepreneurs that were just starting businesses or that had just closed their businesses that also needed support, so we decided to launch the Never Stop Never Settle Society.

Mary: I mean another initiative which is a celebration really, is around Lunar New Year. How did you incorporate your DENI charity initiatives into that? Because it was live and it was also digital- it was interesting combination of experiential that this new world that we’re currently experiencing, and discover it, to a large extent,

Sandra: Yes, absolutely. On that specifically we wanted to ensure that, also outside the black community, that we speak to the diversity of our brand. So we not only support the black community, but also the Asian and Hispanic community, and  we celebrate the Asian community all the time with Lunar New Year, and I’m not sure if you know Henry Golding? He is also one of part of our Fab Five members, along with Nas. 

 

Mary: Great, fantastic. So there’s some huge talent! Both of those guys have been amazing, really, really amazing. I do want to tackle just one huge major question and it’s something that I’ve been talking to creators and influencers about quite a bit recently, and you know, as an industry, I think we have a challenge about the pay disparity across different races and ethnicities. You know at TAKUMI, we would never pay anybody anything different because of the colour of their skin, but we certainly know that there have been examples- far too many- where brands have gone to really, you know, what I would describe as super cool, talented, people and said, ‘work with us and you do it for free and we’ll give you more exposure’, but I mean… I argue exposure doesn’t pay the rent. I just wondered whether you had any thoughts on what we can do, as an industry, to help influencers and creators understand how they can improve their value and make themselves, you know, more valuable to brands into advertisers. What do you think they need to be concentrating on?

Sandra: That’s an interesting question Mary! Not interesting, but it’s a it’s a tough one. Right, yeah, we’re all still learning so much about equal pay. Yes, it’s not a topic that many people have the education behind or that truly understand it, so for me I would say that education and understanding, what that means and what the background of true, equal pay means, is really what I would say as advice to influencers. Making sure that education is key, and one of the things that we are offering on our website is those education points to help out our influencers and entrepreneurs to continue to educate themselves, not only on equal pay, but other parts of business.

Mary: Yes, I agree. I think it’s really important that influencers understand that there’s a science in advertising and marketing, and the relationships that we build in it with brands, with clients and customers, they’re bringing in their creativity, their talent and their audience to that. But there are also data points all around it that are really, really vital for us to be able to understand, so that we can actually measure the effectiveness of campaigns because fundamentally, that’s what we’re all accountable for. And I think, I think we are absolutely on that journey, but I think it’s something that you know, we as a business and I’m sure it’s the same at Hennessy, you want to ensure that this education piece is actually being taken, and built upon by the influencers and the creators themselves. So, let’s move onto creativity and evolution in influencer marketing. What are some of the creative ways that MH has communicated its purpose through influencers and campaigns?

Sandra: I mean the best example is our Dear Destiny programme, and the film that we launched during the NAACP awards. For us, when we launched that film there, it just took on another complete level of evolution and voice of the brand. And what we did with that campaign, outside of just having Nas as the lead in that film, and his daughter… so I’m not sure if you know but in the film, Destiny is his daughter!

Mary: Oh wow! I didn’t know that.

Sandra: He’s writing the letter to Destiny just in the world, but then he realises that he’s talking to his daughter, so really honing in on family outside of what’s happening and ensuring that you’re taking care of that. But to go back to your question, outside of building that form of the film, and really creating that impactful connection with our consumers, we then took our team Hennessy influencers- so I have 16 members that I manage across the country, who are really the pulse of culture within their cities-  and we engage these influencers to talk about their cities, what they were passionate about and write their own Destiny letters that spoke to them, and that spoke to the city that they represent.

And outside of that we continue to pass that along and continue the movement and have entrepreneurs that are coming in now in the second wave, you’ll see that they’re going to write their own Dear Destiny letters, and these entrepreneurs that we’re bringing on board along with Team Hennessy will be able to supply educational advice to other people that are looking for education, like I mentioned, entrepreneurship.

Mary: It’s fantastic and I think also that in and of itself, you’ve created a movement because that, I mean, you know, every entrepreneur should be looking at writing a letter of their destiny. I think that’s a fabulous idea and something we should genuinely encourage young people and old people, whoever it is, you know, because we all have limitless potential. It’s just a question of recognising and realising that, unlocking it and as you so rightly say, you know, the education piece is so fundamental to this so that you understand, you know the world that you’re actually engaging with, and you can take the power, or you can become truly empowered by having those tools 100%.

Sandra: 100% Mary. You said it’s so beautifully. 

Mary: Yeah, so when you talk there about your influencers representing their cities and obviously, so much that has happened in the world globally but also in the United States, there’s been a very tumultuous few years. How do you actually deal with inclusivity and activism, especially as a luxury brand, because you know a lot of luxury brands are nervous about going near anything that could be perceived as being controversial and you can’t contain what’s going on out there in society, can you?

Sandra: Such a great question. I can tell you that it’s not only Hennessy and our influencers or Team Hennessy that we have to ensure that we protect, but also our consumers. As a company, the one movement that we’ve really taken on is ensuring that we have a voice. So diversity and inclusion is huge for us. As a company, we have really taken the lead in ensuring there’s education behind it and that we have open protected spaces where we can have a voice and talk about the things that we need to do to ensure that we are okay as employees, but that we are also okay in what we’re doing and how we’re proceeding with the brand. And to me, and again for me as the manager of these influencers, what I always tell them is that they have to be honest with themselves- they have to be honest with who they believe they are. And with that, then we can support and help with the toolbox to ensure that we are all in a very secure space to have a stance

For us at Hennessey, you can see through all of our campaigns that we really take a stance, because we are comfortable and we are confident as a brand of who we stand for.

Sandra Suarez

Well I think that’s a great place to be, because I think that confidence allows you to engage with the activism that is inevitably part of, you know, the community that you are connected with and you’re represented by. It’s great to speak to a brand that has got such clarity about that. So I want to congratulate you, because it’s tough! It’s a really tough place to get to so well done, you really deserve to be congratulated. And on that point, Sandra, I’m not going to let you go before you tell us more about yourself, because, you know, you’ve had a number of firsts in your career. I mean we talked before we started recording, and I would love for you to share with the listeners about your story, because it’s pretty fascinating. You’ve seen a lot of change and you’ve been participating in it at the forefront and making that change a reality. So, please do tell us a bit- when did you start off this journey and what was it like?

Sandra: I mean, it’s insane for me because when I think about my journey- it brings me back all the way when I came into the United States. So I was born in Colombia, immigrated to the United States, and came here with immigrant parents from Colombia who came to United States for the American dream.

It’s not an easy road, but with tenacity and being confident in who you are, and really fighting for what you feel is right, that’s going to open up those doors for you to get where you need to. For me, that’s where that’s where my journey started.

Sandra Suarez

Being able to come into the spirits industry, which I knew nothing about, was super interesting. Then, seeing that there was really no diversity at the time, and especially there were no women in that industry, it really put me in a situation where I had to step back, take a deep breath and decide whether I wanted to continue on the journey of making a name for myself in a career within the spirits industry, or just do something else.

I wouldn’t have thought that I would be where I am, leading and being part of such an amazing brand, and directing a team of influencers across the country and really helping foster what that platform looks like. So it’s been a long journey, but I’m super proud of it and I am super proud of the industry itself, because I’ve seen the way that it’s changed. It’s really taken the time to look at the diversity and the powerful and impactful people that work within it, and the talent. So for me it’s been, it’s been really gratifying and I don’t believe that this is even half of it.

 

I think things are going to continue to change and we’re going to see so much change within, not only our industry, but hopefully in other industries as well.

Sandra Suarez

Mary: Amen to that. I think we all recognise that the industry has to change- it must, because we have to have doors so that we can make a much more cohesive society. You know… closed doors, that’s not the way to have peace, calm, and prosperity…you have to open the doors and you have to let people in.

Sandra: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that we say within the company is that we are ‘one’. 

No matter your background, your ethnicity- just making sure that it’s all blended.

Mary: Yeah, which is great and I mean you know, as we move forward, GenZ- the most diverse audience ever- we have to celebrate that. Also, we should encourage their colour-blindness, we should encourage their diversity- that’s their superpower, in my opinion. So I can’t let you go without asking you how you do it, because obviously this pandemic… will it never end? I mean, we see some light now at the end of the tunnel I feel. I for one have fried eyeballs from zoom calls. it’s been relentless right?

Sandra: Yes, yes it has been relentless. I have to tell you that for me it’s been such a learning experience. It’s made me take a minute to stop and really learn about myself and who I am. I can tell you that the way that I’ve done that is ensuring that I go outside. I try to go out every day, just walking, just to make sure that I’m checking in with myself. It’s helped me learn a lot of who I am, so I’m grateful for that pause but I do miss the world just being open, and I do miss seeing people and just having that energy because I think it’s super important to have.

So I do believe what you said Mary, it is going to continue to open up and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Mary: Yes, I am embracing that light! I think, to your point, it’s a really, really useful and valuable piece of advice that what we’ve learned from this pandemic is to be mindful of ourselves, and check in with ourselves, because I think, you know, you could get lost in your job and your career and the rest of it when you’re in a room with other people. Like you said, you’re feeding off the energy from one another. When you’re in the pandemic and you’re on zoom calls or, you know, from 8 o’clock in the morning into 6 o’clock night, it’s very tough to actually have that time – that water cooler moment isn’t there, right. So, it has been about checking in; I absolutely 100% agree with you. So, I am really grateful to you for finding the time to talk to us today. It’s been absolutely fascinating. I completely celebrate what you’re doing and I’m incredibly proud to have met you, and thank you for your time. I really, really have enjoyed it.

Sandra: Thank you, Mary. Same here. You’re a wonderful person. Thank you so much for this time.

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