Getting ready for the future

New generations mean new drinking habits. For younger consumers it’s important to make conscious decisions, both regarding what you drink, but also for when, where and with whom you drink it. That means the market for Ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages has exploded. We had a chat with The Absolut Company’s Sofia Heuer, Director Global Consumer Insights & Planning and Fredrik Syrén, Director Global Channel Marketing, Brand Advocacy and RTD’s, on how to pick up the trends and turn them into products. 

Sofia, how do you work with consumer insights?

In many ways. Partly specific to The Absolut Company and our portfolio, but we also work with trend and foresight reports for the entire Pernod Ricard group. You could say that it is our job to identify the trends and then connect them and define what they mean for our brands. The method is very much based on understanding different target groups, where we have an ongoing dialogue with them on various subjects. We do, for example, in-depth interviews, ethnographic research, group interviews, social listening, continuous monitoring and ad-hoc coverage.

They are easy to keep at home in the fridge and provides variety of flavors as well as enable discovery of new cocktails, without the fuzz of having to have ingredients and mixers at home

And which are the biggest consumer trends right now?

The convenience segment has had a significant increase the last years, and there are a couple of underlying trends driving this change. For example, there has been a strong development of what we call daytime drinking the past few years – when you don’t just consume alcohol in the evenings. For example, it could be about festivals, having a picnic outdoors or just hanging out with friends. That’s where ready-to-drink products fits nicely. They are easy to keep at home in the fridge and provides variety of flavors as well as enable discovery of new cocktails, without the fuzz of having to have ingredients and mixers at home. In addition, since they’re low in alcohol, you can easily keep track of how much you drink compared to if you mix the drinks yourself, which is important from a health and wellness perspective. In other words, with ready-to-drink products you are more in control of your alcohol intake. Another reason to why consumers are looking for control is because of social media. Everything you do can now be documented beyond your control.

In Europe, we’ve been a bit slow to embrace RTD’s, but as there are more and more premium and “better for me” alternatives, the market is showing a strong momentum now as well

How do you work to support the development of new products?

We put a lot of effort into understanding consumers needs and what they are attracted to in products and in this way we can get a better idea of which flavors to either pick up or remove. Right now, for example, we are seeing an interest in cross-pollination of flavors across continents, in the same way as the fusion cuisine in cooking. There is a lot of inspiration from street food and peppery flavors. Of course, a lot of inspiration comes from Asia, but also from Mexico and South America.

Kahlúa RTD Espresso Martini

Fredrik, why does The Absolut Company focus so much on the Ready to drink-segment?

The market has exploded in several parts of the world in the last couple of years. Much of this development stems from a strong US-based trend which can be summarized as “better for me”. You want to enjoy a drink, but not get too many calories. You want something lighter than a beer to feel less full. This has led to the strong growth of the hard seltzers segment. Another trend that has also helped to popularize RTD’s is that it has become much more premium. Now there are high-quality cocktails in a can that taste perfect and that you just drink from the can or pour and serve. We have, for example, launched a range of Absolut cocktails and Kahlúa has its popular Espresso Martini. Malibu has the classic Pina Colada cocktail and some other refreshing offers.

Malibu RTD’s

What differences are there between the generations?

In terms of age, one might be inclined to generalize a bit and say that RTD’s mainly appeal to younger target groups. But older target groups are also starting to open up to the convenience of ready-mixed cocktails. One explanation for this may be that younger generations aren’t mainly looking for the effects of alcohol. For example, we see a clear trend that nightclubs are no longer as important as bars when it comes to consumption. The pandemic has also accelerated this shift. Today you hang out more at home and then it is convenient to have a variety pack in the fridge so you can serve perfectly chilled drinks to your guests without having to worry about mixing it right or having all the ingredients available. We also see that this trend continues after the pandemic. The forecast for the top 20 markets is growth of about 20 percent annually.

Sofia Heuer, Director Global Consumer Insights & Planning and Fredrik Syrén, Director Global Channel Marketing, Brand Advocacy and RTD’s.

Is this a global trend, or are there any regional specifics?

The development differs between markets. The US is both the largest market and also have the highest growth with over 40 percent growth last year. The calculations made by independent research bodies are that RTD’s will overtake wine in terms of volume in the American market already this year and be the second largest alcohol segment after beer. Next to the US, Japan is the largest market, but with a much stronger presence of domestic brands. In Europe, we’ve been a bit slow to embrace RTD’s, but as there are more and more premium and “better for me” alternatives, the market is showing a strong momentum now as well.

How to find the right person for the right place

Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, The Absolut Company.

Responsibility for people requires good judgement of character with a great knowledge and skillset to help key talents within the organization to develop their careers. We had a chat with Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, about the challenges of being the rebel in the group, how to break silos throughout the company and the recipe for success in attracting the world’s best talents to the cold, dark north. And how to find the best nose in the business.

How do you work to ensure that Absolut always is perceived as relevant?

Well, for starters by making sure we’re being perceived as relevant to all our existing employees. Our co-workers are our most important ambassadors and if they thrive, we will attract others to join us. I think it is important to have that self-confidence as an employer. Then it’s of course a necessity for all of us who work with HR to keep up with trends in the work force market and in society to be able to constantly review our offer. It can be about everything from flexible benefits to ensuring a good working environment, offering relevant developing opportunities and, not least, career paths. I think we do all this, and much more, very well today, but going forward we will put even more focus on communicating about The Absolut Company as an employer. We want to reach out with our message what makes us special and why you should join our team; internally to build engagement and retain our people, and externally to attract future talent.

What are the challenges when searching for the right candidates for a global organization?

We have great hiring processes and tools to support quality assurance in the candidate experience. We also have a great advantage in being able to get assistance from the broad HR network that exist within the Pernod Ricard Group. It is easy to become a bit overwhelmed when searching for candidates in certain markets. Take South Korea as an example: here, we depend on the local team to help us find the right candidates. They are the ones keeping track of the smartest channels to use and how to advertise and customize requirements of profiles in that market. The cultural aspects are super important and can’t be overlooked so local knowledge is one of the keys to finding the right talent. When it comes to candidates for leadership team positions, the recruitments are handled centrally as part of the global talent process, coordinated by the HR team at Pernod Ricard head office in Paris and involving all affiliates.

What types of recruitments are you most passionate about?

I like all types of recruitments. It’s so cool to meet other people who are passionate about what they do – just as I’m passionate about what I do.

I like all types of recruitments. It’s so cool to meet other people who are passionate about what they do – just as I’m passionate about what I do. I am very proud of TAC and it is always great to get the opportunity to present what we are good at and what we want to achieve and understand how the company needs fits with what different candidates themselves are good at and how they want to contribute, simply put; to find a happy match!

What does your dream recruitment look like?

One that I was very excited about was when we searched for a new “Billion Dollar Nose”. Our sensory expert retired and needed to be replaced and we were literally looking around the world for suitable candidates, but in the end, we ended up hiring internally. Giving a development opportunity to Daniel Nilsson, an existing talent, in strong competition, and finding what we needed in our own backyard was a very satisfying feeling. Then, of course, I must also mention the recruitment of our Chief Creative Officer Tad Greenough. It was a true dream recruitment and I think it’s amazing that we were able to attract such a strong talent all the way from Oregon to Stockholm. Tad is truly a ‘perfect match’ that makes a difference and contributes to leadership, creativity and relationship building. Tad embraces our culture and values and is a good ambassador.

Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, The Absolut Company.

Which roles are most difficult to recruit?

For TAC, there are two types of recruitments that can be extra tricky: finding specific functional expertise and candidates with international experience. We’ve historically had a strategy to find and recruit good generalists, but since a while back we are building a clearer expert organization. And this transformation is somewhat challenging from time to time. Recruitment where significant international experience is required is also difficult at times. We’re in constant need of new perspectives from other cultures and finding people with the right skillset, who are also used to working in a global context, is hard. At the same time, it is vital for us. Our brands have a global reach and Sweden is a small country, with few companies providing this type of global roles. To find the right talent, with the right experience, we need to challenge ourselves to be flexible and creative and not necessarily demand that the candidates must be in Sweden to work for TAC.

Has the pandemic made you think in a different way in these matters?

To find the right talent, with the right experience, we need to challenge ourselves to be flexible and creative and not necessarily demand that the candidates must be in Sweden to work for TAC

Yes partially. In TAC, depending on type of job or course, our people had the opportunity for some remote work even before Covid, but the development during the pandemic has accelerated the change. We’ve now proven to ourselves that more work than we expected can be done virtually with good results. I believe there is a general maturity in Sweden to work remotely, compared to some countries where office tradition is more rooted. The dual responsibility of parenting and our culture of trust might be part of the explanation. With this said we should not forget that we are in the conviviality business, the meeting in real life between people enjoying our products is in our DNA. We love to come together and interact, build on ideas and collaborate.

What questions do you usually have to deal with at work?

My role is to drive the HR topics on a strategic level; have a holistic view and lead the way for my team. I often get involved when someone in my team wants to have feedback on a proposal or ask for a second opinion before deciding. I try to avoid being too stuck in details. Within Pernod Ricard, the business model is largely based on relationships and collaboration, so I often engage when we need to establish contacts or find solutions across functions or affiliates. Since a few years back, the group has built up several global processes within HR, and I appreciate that development. I think it makes us more professional and more efficient as an organization; with higher quality thanks to leveraging expertise and decisions from skilled people looking at the full picture and common needs.

Which issues are the most difficult to deal with?

Change and challenging status quo is always difficult. As humans, we’re programed to avoid change. Security is usually the first choice, so the uncertainty of something new can be scary. But constantly develop staff and involve them in changes is one of the keys to getting people on board and feel they are part of the transformation journey. Our industry is undergoing rapid change and we, as a company, must keep up. This of course means that we sometimes need to bring in new skills and capabilities from outside expertise, but we also value continuity and experience and we believe in constant capability building of our people. The mix is ​​what makes the drink tasty, right. We often choose to refine, rather than renew, we try to build on what we have and often implement changes in small steps instead of radical leaps.

We’ve come a long way when it comes to supporting the development of independent employees and giving them freedom under responsibility and accountability. It’s a cornerstone, just like trust.

How do you work with building functional teams?

Within Pernod Ricard, we have an HR strategy called TransfoHRm and in that strategy we clearly communicate that we put the employee in the center. We must have mixed teams with a variety of perspectives, and we strive for empowerment, i.e. to strengthen individuals and teams to work independently. This works very well within TAC and in the company culture; we’ve come a long way when it comes to supporting the development of independent employees and giving them freedom under responsibility and accountability. It’s a cornerstone, just like trust.

What is most challenging in your role?

That there are many initiatives knocking on the door and a very ambitious transformation agenda in the group. It’s all great stuff, but it takes a lot of hands-on work for the HR team to adapt and implemented locally and we need to be mindful about people’s time but in our team but also others. This means we need to pace launches and roll outs based on what the organization can grasp, take in and embrace.

How do you handle conflicts?

Communication is always the key, I would say. To get an understanding of the different perspectives and try to work out the knots in the teams. If there is a squeak in the machinery, it is important to quickly bring up the problem on the table and talk about it before a misunderstanding or misalignment leads to a conflict. People managers need to be clear with feedback and dare to be open – another aspect is not to be afraid to reach out and seek help if needed.

How do you work with inclusion?

This is a super important topic for both The Absolut Company and Pernod Ricard. We took a holistic approach at group level on all matters of inclusion a long time ago, but in 2015 the work was intensified when we launched our Better Balance program. It started with a broad, group-wide campaign with an enormous amount of training efforts to increase knowledge, awareness and commitment at all levels of the organization. And our diversity and inclusion program has really paid off – although of course we can get even better. Right now, I think we are in an exciting phase where the Pernod Ricard group has decided to inject new energy in the field and also dare to commit to clear goals on global level, for example when it comes to female representation in group top management. We see, for example, that competitors such as Diageo are very good at highlighting their diversity work and we do not want to be perceived as lesser. To meet the group ambition, we at TAC have a dedicated person in the HR team who is working with inclusion matters and will lead the work of updating our strategy and action plan. At the back of these initiatives, we will also have a strong concept and communication platform that the group has given the creative and audacious name “Live without Labels”.

I did team gymnastics when I was younger and already at the age of 12, I took my first leadership assignment as an assistant coach

How do you work to lift employees within the organization?

In managerial training, we talk a lot about celebrating success and giving recognition for good work. It is an important part of the leadership within TAC. We also try to allocate a generous training budget that is used for all employees. But our learning and development strategy is to learn not only from courses and external programs, it is also about learning from others and most importantly you learn on the job. This way, we can broaden and deepen competencies, build capabilities and elevate talent. Another initiative coming up next fiscal year is ‘Pay for Performance’ this is about reinforcing a high performing culture and encourage our people to go the extra mile and differentiate reward based on it.

What experiences have you had with you in the past? And is there any part that you are working on developing?

When growing up, I was naturally drawn to different leadership roles. I did team gymnastics when I was younger and already at the age of 12, I took my first leadership assignment as an assistant coach. Then I remained a coach for 25 years. Sports gave me an incredible joy and desire to constantly strive to achieve my own goals as well as the team’s and help others reach theirs. Then, on the other hand, the flip side of having a strong competitive instinct is that I can get a bit impatient in my eagerness to achieve results. When I was young, I was quick to draw conclusions and find solutions. And sometimes I was in too much of a hurry. Therefore, I have actively worked to learn to listen first, trust the process and adjust my pace. This makes collaboration so much easier, more fun and more effective!

What are you most proud of having accomplished during your time at TAC?

Being a leader at TAC, one of the most important jobs is to safeguard our TAC Values; Together – Audacious – Committed. The teamwork put in when developing these company values and behaviors a few years ago, and how well they describe our culture in a sustainable and long-term way, is something I’m very proud of. They are our common foundation and guide us every day in all types of situations – and I think they are fantastic.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

Then I would have liked to work in the book publishing industry. I love to read.

The next person to interview in this series is the TAC CFO Donny Tobin. What would you like to ask him?

I think it would be interesting to hear his perspective on what it’s like for him to be part of an executive leadership team for the first time in his career. This is a position that many aspire to, but which relatively few succeed in reaching. What does he think is the biggest difference compared to before now that he is holding one of the company’s top management positions? And of course, it would be interesting to hear about his journey from Ireland, to US and now Sweden; what is sticking out as different and what surprised him about Sweden and TAC?

Paper bottle development reaches significant milestone

The story of Absolut Paper and the vision to create a recyclable and fully bio-based paper bottle continues together with PABOCO. We’ve heard rumors of major progress in the project, so who better to talk to than The Absolut Company’s own Future of Packaging Director Louise Werner?

We’re told you have news from the PABOCO community regarding the paper bottle. Would you like to share with us?

Yes, we recently reached a very important milestone. We have managed to integrate the barrier – the coating that separates the fluid from the paper – into the paper itself. With an integrated barrier we can use much less barrier material and start testing different bio-based solutions.

We have managed to integrate the barrier – the coating that separates the fluid from the paper – into the paper itself

Will the paper bottle still be recyclable? Will it be plastic free?

Yes, it will be recycled as paper. The recycling rate of paper is 70 percent worldwide and separating paper from other materials is nothing new for the recycling industry. That is important, because now when we can integrate the barrier, we are testing different bio-based coatings, including bio-plastics. The important thing here is to use as little barrier material as possible and still ensure good product quality.

What input did you get from the consumers who tested the bottle earlier this year?
What satisfies me the most is that virtually everyone asked how they should recycle the bottle. It shows that people care just as much as we do. And although it’s nothing less than what we expect from our consumers, I’m still pleased that they are on board with our vision of having a fully recyclable bottle.

The bottle also has a very special touch and feel to it, with a smooth surface and detailed design elements. People said they appreciated that, and they recognized the high level of innovation that has been put into developing the bottle. They said it was in line with the Absolut brand.

How has the PABOCO partnership helped in the development of the bottle?

We are already two years into development, but we’re still constantly learning from each other. We share insights on everything that can help push development forward, like how new barrier materials performs, how consumers react to the bottle and how well the production lines manage to adapt to an entirely new packaging. Thanks to our diverse needs and expertise, all companies involved in the Paboco Community contribute in different ways to make sure we will have the most durable and sustainable bottle out there.

The Paper Bottle Community.

What’s next for the paper bottle?

With this important milestone achieved, we are eager to test the bottle even further. We test it both in labs to make sure it’s durable over time, and with consumers to make sure it’s appreciated and possible for a large-scale launch. We’re of course also looking forward to exploring bio-based materials that could work as a barrier inside the bottle.

How close are you to achieving the goal of a recyclable and fully bio-based paper bottle?

Integrating the coating into the paper is a huge step forward, and for the first time we are showing a prototype that is very close to our final vision. But we still have some important goals to achieve, like scaling the technology and quality testing of the integrated bio-based material that will replace the plastic film we use today. That is not done overnight though, so we’re still at least one and a half years from seeing it on shelves.

Read more about PABOCO here.

Doing good in times of troubles

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but in the Philippines and Mexico, things have been really challenging. We had a talk with Lynne Millar, Purchasing Director at Malibu and Kahlúa operations at Pernod Ricard, on the status of the Malibu initiative the Coconut Commitment and the Kahlúa project; Coffee for Good.

How are the Coconut Commitment and Coffee for Good initiatives doing?

If I start with the Malibu program, life in the Philippines during the pandemic has been especially difficult. In rural areas there is a lack of sanitation and getting access to provide support can be a major challenge as most of the Philippines has been in a lockdown. In the region where most of our coconut farmers are located, the situation has been even worse with the military taking control of the area and setting up checkpoints in efforts to try and control the spread of the virus and to prevent migration of people to different regions. In these areas there is little access to fresh water and no money to buy sanitation equipment and extra food supplies, but within the framework of the program our partner the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) was able to access additional funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to help aid the community by distributing emergency packs with rice, corn, bottles water and face masks to the farmers. At times, we really didn’t know if our farmers even had enough food to feed their families, so it’s amazing that we could help in some small way.

Our ambition is to double the work to make up for time lost during last year

In addition to the hardest of times facing a global pandemic, the country was struck by a super typhoon in November claiming several lives and affecting over 2 million people, with widespread destruction of homes. As a culture they are so incredibly resilient.

The program was naturally impacted heavily by these circumstances and everyone connected to the project has had to adapt. It was our initial plan to sit down face to face with the farmers to assess a starting point for each individual by defining number of hectares planted, number of family members and typical annual yields and income. This was of course not possible now, so we tried to do what we could from a distance, but it wasn’t easy when we couldn’t talk directly with all farmers. But by reaching 10-20 percent of the farmers, we’re at least able to make qualified assumptions based on the intel we were able to get. We will validate our assumptions when it’s possible.

We also had to cancel all on-site training of the farmers, and instead switch to digital sessions, but eventually we managed to have a consultant visit the area once the hardest restrictions were lifted. The consultant then carried out an assessment of the situation and put together a plan for a set of demo farms that can help train the farmers in sustainable farming methods and how to maximise the efficiency of the farm to both improve the yield and minimize the negative impact on the environment. When time allows, we will build additional demo farms with the involvement of the farming communities, especially the youth. Our ambition is to double the work to make up for time lost during last year. We’re ready with all the infrastructure needed when we’re allowed to restart at site. So, we’ve not wasted any time, but we’ve made less progress than we hoped. Our major targets over the four years of the initiative are to increase the farmer’s yield by 20%, increase income by 15% and also to help the farmers to adapt to more sustainable farming practices, guided by the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) tool developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform.

Image from a previous site visit in the Philippines for the Coconut Commitment program.

And how has the situation been in Mexico for the Coffee for Good farmers?

It has been a similar difficult situation. The Veracruz region was mainly cut off and access controlled by military adding to that, there was some skepticism amongst the farmers on the severity of the covid virus initially. Our NGO Fondo Para La Paz did their best to educate the farmers and raise their awareness and eventually they understood the serious nature of the situation. Even if Kahlua invests a lot in the program, when Covid 19 impacted the world in 2020 Kahlúa immediately allocated additional funds to ensure that the farmers and the team of our NGO partners Fondo Para La Paz had access to protective clothing and sanitizer products.

For Malibu, we’re really ready to ramp things up. Both by increasing the training of the farmers and the physical help in providing crops for planting.

In terms of progress for the project, things were slowed down a bit, but the Coffee for Good initiative is so mature by now that there was no immediate need for new planning. This year, we’ve had bigger yields than ever before, so all the planting and work we’ve been doing is proving successful and generating results. Adding to that, both Brazil and Colombia have had bad crops last year which has driven up the prices to a new high. Good news for our farmers as they could take advantage of a short term opportunity to earn more.

Now that the area has opened up a bit more, our NGO can visit the farms again, and some of the construction projects that has been put on hold can continue again. I’m sure we’ll be up to speed quite fast in Mexico soon.

Lynne Millar, Purchasing Director Malibu and Kahlúa operations at Pernod Ricard (to the right) during a previous visit in Mexico for the Coffee for Good program.

What are the next steps?

For Malibu, we’re really ready to ramp things up. Both by increasing the training of the farmers and the physical help in providing crops for planting. We have a program to replace old coconut trees that are not productive and we’re also looking into varieties that are more resistant to climate change so we can maximize yields over time. That’s our top priority from now on.

For Kahlúa, our plan is to reach the target of 100 percent sustainable coffee by 2022. And we’re well on track to achieving this. Our long-term plan is also to continue to purchase from these communities for many years, even after we’ve completed our Coffee for Good project.

About the programs

The Coconut Commitment

The Coconut Commitment is Malibu’s way of helping to positively impact the livelihood for 500 coconut farmers in the Philippines by 2024. The goal is to increase their income and farm yields and help them adapt their farming practices.

Coffee for Good

Kahlúa’s initiative Coffee for Good is a sustainable development program designed to have a meaningful environmental and socio-economic impact on the lives of Mexican coffee farmers and their families. Shining a spotlight on how it sources its coffee, Kahlúa has also outlined its ultimate goal – to source 100% of its coffee from sustainable communities by 2022.

A man with a mission

As a kid, he wanted to explore space and as an adult he has made it a mission to make the world a better place. Through marketing, inclusivity and meaningful communication, Charl Bassil, Global Vice President Marketing, has set an example on how to use the power of a brand to create positive change. We sat down with the expat South African to learn more about what’s really in the Absolut spirit.

TAC is working hard to foster and retain an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit within the company. How do you work with innovation in your team?

– I genuinely believe we need to create a shared vision of the future. To really get to terms with why and how the future will be better than today. Once you know where you want to go, it’s much easier to plan the journey. And if you are all on board the ride, you can start to find shortcuts or devise a better route as you go. But it all starts with the vision. Coming from South Africa, I have seen the transformation of our own South African society and I take a lot of inspiration from Nelson Mandela and how he constantly worked with getting people to share his vision of inclusivity. Getting a buy-in from the people helped him achieve so much during his five years as a leader for South Africa. Just amazing. If you want to encourage and nourish an innovative culture you need to figure out what the consumer needs, look at and be inspired by what others are doing – as my father used to say, there is no shame in stealing with your eyes – and always try to have a collaborative mindset. The pieces of the puzzle need to fit together to create a full picture, right.

What other innovative companies, brands and entrepreneurs inspire you?

– There are so many great examples, but if I have to name one company that I think has had an incredible journey, I’d say Coca Cola. They’ve successfully managed to move from being a soft drinks manufacturer to a complete beverage company. Another great example is the craft tonic water company Fever Tree, who now make a range of mixers. I think that they’ve really mastered the art of finding and exploiting a niche in the market. There is a saying in our family that when gold gets discovered, don’t just be another miner, but rather be the one who sells the mining equipment. To me, that’s what Fever Tree has understood. And then this answer would not be complete if I didn’t mention Elon Musk. As South Africans, we don’t always have examples of innovators from our own country who are globally renowned. But Elon is one of them and I admire his willingness to try things without the fear of criticism.  He has made massive strides to help break the myth that great thinking does not come from smaller places. And even though he can come across as little crazy at times, I think he is great.

Coming from South Africa, I have seen the transformation of our own South African society and I take a lot of inspiration from Nelson Mandela and how he constantly worked with getting people to share his vision of inclusivity

What value does Absolut bring to a world where no one drinks vodka?

– Throughout our history, Absolut has focused on three very important things. The first thing is our dedication to inclusivity. We embrace diversity and we are no strangers to welcoming outsiders into our community. When Absolut collaborated with Andy Warhol, the brand became one of the first major brands to truly engage with the LGBT community at scale. This mindset of inclusivity goes back all the way to our founder L.O. Smith, who always worked hard for social inclusivity – especially for worker and women’s rights. And this way of conducting business really attracted me to the brand. As the son of immigrant parents (coming from Lebanon), I can easily relate to the feeling of being an outsider in your community.

You mentioned three key points. What’s number two on your list?

– Absolut has in so many ways been defined by its progressiveness. There’s a constant will and ambition to move forward and to make things better. The Absolut Company has Passion for Progression as our mission statement, and I think it rings true when you think about all the past and present initiatives that have been or are about to be implemented. For example, L.O. Smith reformed the production process to be able to offer good quality vodka at a reasonable price. Another proof point is the fact that Absolut Peppar and Absolut Citron were the very first flavored vodkas ever introduced on the market.  Currently our operations teams are doing some fantastic work at our production facility in Åhus to reduce our environmental impact that has been incredibly progressive.

Third and last?

– Absolut has always embraced creativity. Not just in the sense of modern art, but in a much broader way. It is well known that our first major collaboration was with the artist Andy Warhol, so the bar was set very high from the start. But we have also worked with graffiti artists and with street art, and also with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and many Gen Z-artists and creatives, who are doing amazing things just using their mobile phones. Creativity is core for how we bring our brand to life and that mindset has fostered a unique openness to trying new things. That’s part of the reason we have the creative platform of “Create better together” built into in all our briefs.

What role can and shall Absolut have as an international brand in a very polarized world today?

– Our purpose, as a brand, is to create a more open world. How we go about this is different in different parts of the world. For instance, in the US we need to break the ice a little bit more than in Europe. That’s why we chose to work with Rain for our #SexResponsibly campaign. At the same time, we have a strong legacy when it comes to manifesting our purpose through our actions. As mentioned previously, we have always advocated for inclusivity and we continue to embrace diversity. In my opinion, it’s all about the mix and how it helps to elevate your purpose – regardless of market, collaboration or campaign.

There’s a constant will and ambition to move forward and to make things better

How did the campaign It’s in our Spirit come about?

– A few years ago, Absolut was suffering from fragmentation in what was communicated and how we communicated our message. At the same time our global CEO was driving for global consistency across our global brands. After reviewing the last 40 years of communication and reflecting on what is relevant for consumers today we have defined “Create better together” as our global creative platform (or big idea) which has since become a beacon for us when developing new campaigns. The “It’s in our spirit” campaign is targeting Gen Z consumers across EMEA Latam and Asia, a generation which in many ways has been described as the loneliest generation ever. They are more connected than any previous generation, but they are feeling isolated from a group. So, we wanted to capture their situation in this campaign and highlight the desire to meet each other, digitally but even more so in real life. To illustrate this, we collaborated with four well-known influencers (across film, music and gaming) to help manifest our need to belong and connect.

From Absolut’s “It’s in our Spirit campaign”, 2020.

How has it been received?

– It worked just as we’d hoped in the UK, Germany and China, so we’re very pleased with the results there. On the other hand, we faced some challenges in South Africa and Brazil, where we will need to refine the communication slightly.

Which is your all-time favorite Absolut campaign?

– For me personally, it’s hard to choose. But the original Absolut perfection campaign by TBWA is beautifully crisp and simple. It has indeed become an iconic piece of advertising. What has made it personally even more relevant for me is the discovery that the creative director behind the campaign was South African, even though he was living in NYC at the time. But knowing that has weirdly given me a bit of confidence that as a South African I do have some legitimacy to be a part of the Absolut story.

“Absolut Perfection”, print campaign, 1980.

What’s most important to you in your job?

– Creating value is really important to me. Let me elaborate. Firstly, I mean adding value to an organization where I work so that it is better off when I leave than before I joined – and that specially applies to the people I have the privilege to work with. Secondly, creating value for our consumers. This can be done in many ways of course, but for me it’s very important that we are able to spread a message that is positive and uplifting to inspire others and to help create a relief from the everyday challenges in the world. And last but not least, I know that creating value for the business is important by contributing to the bottom line.  

What has been the most challenging moment in your career? What did you learn

– Like so many people I guess my career has been marked by several challenging moments. But if there is one thing I take away consistently it is that situations will never stay the same (whether they be good or bad) and that a bit of patience and a lot of resilience will allow you to get through any circumstance. As my mother always reminded me when growing up “tomorrow the sun will rise again”.

Our purpose, as a brand, is to create a more open world. How we go about this is different in different parts of the world.

You were born and raised in South Africa, and now you´re living in Stockholm, Sweden. What are the biggest rewards when pursuing an international career?

– I genuinely believe that you get a chance to challenge your own perceptions … about everything. About who you are, about other people, other cultures and even about where you come from. It gives you a perspective that is invaluable. We have learned to love living in Sweden, because we have found a way to adapt to the culture and a very different climate. It’s efficient and things work well. In some ways, it’s not too different from living in South Africa and in many ways it’s totally different. But it’s a place that we are trying to make feel like home.

Paul Ricard had a motto to “make a friend every day” which is still a guiding principle within the group. What’s your best practice for achieving this?

– Just to be open and curious about other people and to make an effort to reach out to others. This principle fits very nicely with the Absolut brand values of inclusivity. I keep reminding myself that consumers are more than that – they are real human beings.  Brothers, sisters, parents … so much more than just numbers on a page. I’m genuinely fascinated by what makes people tick and where they come from, which is a great driver to making new friends.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

– As a kid, I thought I was going to be an astronaut. My vision was to do a PHD in aeronautical engineering and then go to the US to join NASA. But I’ve always had a desire to make an impact in some way and this was imbedded in me from a young age.

A digital path to perfection

Emil Svärdh, Automation Engineer at The Absolut Company.

Achieving high set goals require a great ability to translate vision into practice. And when The Absolut Company’s ambitious sustainability goals are to become a reality, two of the keys are to both improve and refine the machines and processes – without this affecting production. The solution is to build a digital copy of the factory in order to be able to test and analyze changes virtually. We had a short chat with automation engineer Emil Svärdh about what he actually does at work every day and why it is so important.

Your title is Senior Automation Engineer. What does that mean?

That is a good question. The simple answer is that I work with our journey to become autonomous – that is, with the digitalisation of our production. I don’t really work with our machines, but more with information flow to and from the machines. Primarily by building a digital replica of our physical flows. In this way, it is easier to see and analyze what is happening in production in order to then be able to make changes and improvements in the real machines. In other words, I sit in front of a computer and set up an architecture of which systems and data points to include, which system should own which data point and how they can be orchestrated internally to business systems or manufacturing systems. It sounds a bit abstract, but when I can show what a change means, it usually clears up. The data we extract shall be used to support our decision making and continuous improvements.

The data we extract shall be used to support our decision making and continuous improvements

What are the benefits of automation?

Our production philosophy includes that we are One source – that we come from and are manufactured in one place. This allows us to look at the entire flow of production and thus be very agile in finding new ways to refine and improve our processes. Both when it comes to manufacturing and waste management. Making a Litre Absolut Vodka is a simple thing, but if you change something only a little bit in the manufacturing process, it will generate a new digital path that needs to be controlled before the product can be manufactured. And that’s my job.

How far has TAC come in the development of digitalisation?

We are extremely far ahead in an automation perspective. It also means that we have an easier journey than many others. We have got off to a good start thanks to the fact that we have new machines and financial means – but also because we have a management that is interested in us making this journey and an organization that can and wants to be a part of it.

The Absolut factory located in Åhus in south of Sweden.

How do you work with AI and Machine Learning when it comes to automation?

AI and Machine Learning is really an upcoming project for us. Today, it is most introduced through predictive maintenance of components in the machines. When it comes to bottling, we are in the starting blocks, but in order for it to be fully implemented, we must first know exactly what we produce and how we produce it from a digital point of view. We are building up that knowledge base right now and when we have all the facts, we can apply AI and machine learning fully. An example of this is how we work with our glass. It is a living material, so that makes it a perfect starting point for applying machine learning in order to be able to avoid sorting out glass that is not incorrect, although the reflection may look like that to the vision system we have. Here, the operator is a key player for us building a reference model of what is a good versus scrap. It takes time to gather all the knowledge, but once it is done, it will definitely impact the production.

AI and Machine Learning is really an upcoming project for us

What other industries are leading this development?

I would say that the car industry is the one that has come the furthest. Another player is Swedish ball bearing manufacturer SKF. There is a big difference compared to our business though – these industries have an aftermarket that must be taken into account, which is not the case for us. On the other hand, we want to adopt the same basic idea, that is, that we do not just make a product, hence the product itself is a variety of components and operations to be performed. If we think like that, it will be easier to break down our processes and find a digital path to the end product that is flexible. Once we get there, we can also more easily make the changes and improvements needed to reach our goals.

How does your work help TAC to achieve its high sustainability goals?

It is about choosing which initiatives to support. To choose the right one, one must first know what the actual reality looks like and then find the best way to be able to control it. That’s very important. My job is also very much about building on our transparency canvas, that is, how we work and what it generates. The result can then be shown to our customers and also be used for improving our work.

What is your vision for production in Åhus in the long term?

To be a “One button shop”. That we should have a ready-made path for all our products – regardless of whether we want to manufacture one or 100,000 units. We must be even more agile to make changes that take the products we produce to market as fast as possible. It is a journey we are in the middle of and I am completely convinced that when we are at the finish line, it will benefit both us as a company and our consumers.