Nidal Ramini is Advocacy Director at Brown-Forman. It is a position that did not exist prior to him joining the company, and for a good reason – he effectively created it. For the past decade, Ramini has been spearheading Brown-Forman’s advocacy efforts; first in the UK, then Europe and Africa, and now, effectively worldwide.
Ramini recently made his first trip to Asia, and is looking to continue his advocacy work in a market that is entirely new to him. We spoke to Ramini about his rather unique role to find out what we can expect to see from him and his team.
How did you get your big break?
Nidal Ramini: I met my business partner in 2002 and we wanted to deliver five-star drinks and five-star service. We had this first bar called Dusk, a big party bar, like 200 capacity – good drinks but quick, and lots of fun. We then opened Montgomery Place at Notting Hill, which is very much service-forward and guest-forward.
Everything that I would do is always about the guest and about giving good service. No one was doing that in London at the time and that’s when my name really started to get elevated.
We built a really good team of people. One of my first hires was Agostino Perrone who is now at The Connaught. Other people you might know are Marian Bekke at The Gibson Bar and Stefano Francavilla, who’s the global Tequila Forteleza ambassador.
So how did you wind up at Brown-Forman?
We had the big recession in 2008 and it was just a very hard time for business, but we managed to get out of it. At the time the brand manager at Brown-Forman said, listen, we want to launch Woodford Reserve in the UK focusing on the on-premise. We’d really love someone who understands on-premise, understands premium, understands Woodford, understands cocktails, and has a name. So come and help us develop this brand.
So I did that. I thought I would do it for a couple of years as a consultant and I’ll be back into bars, but I really enjoy working for Brown-Forman. So two years turned out to be, you know, 12 more. [laughs]
Why is advocacy important?
When you see the passion that you have for the brand being passed to somebody else; it’s really quite unique. If you think about all the businesses in the world, the on-trade dynamic doesn’t really exist in any other industry.
In the beginning, we only had Jack Daniels and Woodford and for us to grow brands like Woodford, we were hand-selling them. We went to the bars and did classic brand education–this is what we’re from, this is how it’s made.
When you get bartenders to talk about your brands or recommend your brands or have an affinity for your brand, it’s the most powerful form of communication that exists, in my opinion. It’s better than TV adverts, better than posters, and better than a celebrity endorsement.
How has the bar scene changed over the last few years?
I think this is probably true of every business: the cream rises and the good places would survive.
Barcelona’s a great example. The premium places have focused on more than just location – good service, good atmosphere, good drinks, everything – are the ones that thrived. I was in Athens last week; all the bars are busy but everybody has got a huge smile on their face. They look after you brilliantly. Everyone is making sure that you have a great time, bending over themselves to make sure that you have a positive experience.
And that is, I think, the way that the on-premise needs to be evolving. Focus on service, focus on your guests, right? Because we can’t help you as brands unless you have those fundamentals. We can help you deliver more but you know, that’s what you need to understand first.
What were your impressions of Singapore before you arrived here?
Incredible bars and amazing hotels. I was really interested to see what that scene is like and how can we support them as well. I want to see what the next generation of hospitality leaders in Singapore is going to look like.
Are we going to see more bars run by local people versus Europeans who are here? Are there young entrepreneurs who are opening bars and doing things inspired by well-known bartenders like Rusty (Cerven) at Manhattan? Who’s the next guy coming up and what am I going to hear about next?
What do you think of the new generation of bartenders here and what will your strategy be?
When I was talking to the bartenders in the venues, the common theme is that they all want to improve. And to be honest, that’s true of any professional in this industry. Therefore my strategy is always the same: we are about helping the local hospitality industry to grow and flourish. How we execute these strategies depends on the experience levels of the bartenders, the venues they work in and their expectations of what they see as development.
For example, one group may be looking to break into the Top 50 or improve their position. Another group may want to understand how to improve their speed of service and another might want simple solutions on how to improve their cocktail programme. The goal is the same: improvement.
We need to understand what inspires them and how we can become that “change agent” because essentially that’s what we do; we are here to change what you do and how you work for the better.
We use different tactics of course, but that’s our goal – to help you improve as a professional and help your business to improve as well. When we do that together, we all win. That’s the difference between creating advocates for our brands and just training bartenders.
How does understanding the next generation affect your strategy?
We need to understand: What do you want? What do you want to achieve as a professional? We’re talking about professionals for whom this is not just a job. As a professional, what do you want to achieve? And how can we help you achieve it? What skills do you need to learn? Who do you want to meet? Who inspires you? What have you seen that’s amazing and how can I help you get there? That’s how you create an advocate for your brand.
My strategy is always the same, but my implementation is tailored to what it is that you want to achieve.
In a way, it’s kind of like looking for the next you?
And I suppose it’s a way of giving back as well?
It’s all about that. We believe the strategies that I’ve put in place and the research that I’ve done; this industry – and community – is built on nurturing relationships and pushing people forward. People want their (home)towns to do well.
Let’s say, a couple of independent bars say that they want Singapore to be known for its independent bar scene. So when the big hitters from Europe, come into town to do guest shifts, we will want them to go work with the independents – to show them what they are doing in the streets.
So these are all these little nuances in the on-premise that you have to understand if you want to have a successful advocacy program.
How can Brown Forman contribute to the scene here?
In short, what can we do that is not already being done by other people? We have to ask the right questions so we can understand how we can inspire this next generation as partners. How can we make them advocates of our brand, so it’s not blind loyalty? We want them to say, look, this is a fantastic bourbon for us. We love others as well but you know the staff at Woodford Reserve are just such good people and they support us in everything that we want to achieve.
That’s our goal here; we want to inspire people.
Is Brown-Forman focusing on bourbons for Singapore?
In terms of international spirits in Singapore, I think I’m right in saying that 65% of it is whisky. I think another 30% is cognac – could be Asia as a whole actually – and like 5% is gin. So, for us, whisky is a huge focus.
How we are going to differentiate ourselves and show a meaningful difference versus our competitors is to support the community in what they need, in our way: connecting them with people, inspiring them and creating advocates for our brand.
We actually did a piece of research a few years ago in Europe and one of the things that we heard back is it says Woodford is clearly a brand that cares about bartenders. I love that – and to be honest, that was what we were doing back in the day. That was before we were strategising around advocacy.
Circling back to the beginning – so what convinced you to say yes to Woodford?
What’s interesting is that before then, I was never really a huge whiskey fan. The team at Woodford Reserve did this trip called ‘Celebrity Bartenders’ and then I saw the distillery and it’s beautiful. When we got back, the brand manager invited everyone from the UK to go to a bar for dinner. He was asking us questions, but no one was really listening. I thought: this guy has spent a lot of time on us. He’s helped me with my career and put me in a certain place. The least I can do is just help him, right?
18 months later, he said to me, we want to grow Woodford Reserve on-premise. We want someone to help us do that and we’d love that person to be you. We would like you to help give the experience that I’ve had to other people.
There was no way I was going to turn it down. How could I say no?
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