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.