John Luck, chief marketing officer at Carabao UK, tells Asian Trader how the energy drink is using football to build awarness in the UK.
Many brands have interesting origin stories but Carabao is probably unique in that it was started by a rock star.
Yuenyong Opakul, also known as Aed Carabao, has a band called Carabao. He is thought of as Thailand’s equivalent of Bruce Springsteen as he sings passionately about his country.
Opakul has built up a fanbase throughout Thailand so when he launched an energy drink it became an overnight success. He chose the name because, as the brand’s advertising presents, the carabao is a South East Asian water buffalo known for its stamina and ability to keep going. After enjoying incredible success across Asia, Carabao was launched in the UK in 2017.
John Luck joined the brand in time for its UK launch.
He has spent most of his career in FMCG, starting out as a commercial manager for Premier Brands before working for Typhoo Tea.
Luck did two stints at Coca-Cola, firstly in the brand experience department, bringing brands to life through promotions. He was then marketing manager for Time Out magazine, spending four years on the London magazine and also getting involved in setting up Time Out franchises in New York, Delhi, Moscow and St Petersburg.
He then worked for Duchy Orginals, Prince Charles’ organic food brand, marketing many products across different categories. “I was working directly for Prince Charles, reporting to him at Clarence House, which was interesting,” he remembers.
After another spell at Coke on GLACÉAU vitaminwater in the UK and across Europe, Luck joined Carabao three years ago. “I like soft drinks,” he explains. “Coke was fantastic in terms of marketing budgets but I always felt like a small piece of the jigsaw. That can become frustrating and creatively stifling. There are so many people having a say in every decision.”
Carabao was attractive to Luck because he was going to be there from the start of the UK launch. “There is a huge global market for energy drinks and the brand was committing to long term investment in the UK energy drinks market,” he continues.
Another reason for the attraction is that Luck is a football fan and Carabao has used football to talk to consumers. “My heart is Liverpool but my head is Chelsea because we sponsor them,” he comments.
In fact, the bulk of the more than £50m Carabao has invested since its UK launch has been in football. The brand is a shirt sponsor of Reading Football Club’s mens and womens teams, is the training kit partner of Chelsea and sponsors the League Cup.
Carabao is also an official partner of the English Football League, giving the brand a presence at all 72 clubs in the EFL.
The company invests in communications to build awareness, including a media campaign, sampling and a number of PR initiatives. Activity ran before last year’s World Cup was about changing the perception of what it is to be a football fan. “If you Google female football fan you see images of scantily clad women,” says Luck. “So we took images of real football fans and we are working with an SEO to get these images further up the Google rankings. It is taking a slightly different approach to football sponsorship.”
The independent channel is “incredibly important” to Carabao, Luck states. As it was initially launched through independents and wholesalers, “that’s where we continue to see the brand grow,” he adds.
Activity around the Carabao Cup Final included working with SPAR and its network of over 2,000 retailers. Anyone watching the final would have seen the LED screens around the side of the pitch which were running throughout that game communicating about Carabao’s partnership with SPAR. “It is about making our product available in SPAR,” Luck elaborates. “The EFL cup gives us the opportunity to talk to fans across the country. The Carabao Cup is a domestic cup competition so it fits well with the network of independent retailers we support.”
The crux of Carabao’s marketing activity is football which gives the brand near constant TV presence through the LED advertising in Carabao Cup games. Recent marketing activity has included sampling. “We believe our products taste great in terms of the preconceptions of how energy drinks can taste,” adds Luck. “It is a big part of our investment.”
Luck claims Carabao hasn’t had to react to the public concern over the sugar content of soft drinks because the company had already identified the trend of consumers looking for healthier options. “The energy drink category includes many brands with a high sugar content,” he continues. “We knew we had to do something differently. The products we launched were low or zero sugar.”
The company has not had to react in terms of the sugar content of its drinks, it has only had to make sure consumers realise its products are low or zero sugar. Carabao’s research shows that the first criteria energy drinkers want is taste. The second concern is they want something that is not unhealthy. This reinforces the opportunity for Carabao’s brands, Luck claims.
“People are consuming the product for its energy benefits, but if there was an alternative product with less sugar, they would go for it,” he says. “That is what we provide.”
In one exercise at London’s Victoria station, Carabao blind sampled its Green Apple product against a leading competitor. When the company told the consumers that both products provide the same amount of energy and asked them which they preferred, 60% preferred Carabao. “Now our job is to deliver that message to as many people as possible,” Luck adds.
Luck claims to have evidence to support the notion that Carabao can grow the energy drink category, with 50% of people who bought Carabao having never purchased an energy drink before. “So we can grow the category further,” he believes. “The opportunity is to grow the category for all those people who are not an 18-24 year old male skateboarder. We don’t believe being devoid of energy is the domain of 18-24 year old young men.”
Carabao’s advertising shows mums drinking the product. “We are trying to be the energy drink for everybody,” Luck states. Proportionately, more women drink Carabao’s products than consume energy drinks across the overall market and 90% of the brand’s sales come from consumers over 25.
“We are trying to broaden the appeal of energy drinks beyond its 18-24 year old heartland,” Luck emphasises. “We see Carabao as a gateway brand to energy drinks. Our product is a carbonated soft drink with caffeine so we are bringing soft drinkers into energy drinks.”
Asked what is the best thing about working with Carabao’s brands, Luck replies that he loves the fact that Carabao is a challenger brand. “Being a challenger brand forces you to think in a different way about how to tackle any issue, whether it is a sales, marketing or distribution issue,” he says. “Because we are small we can react very instinctively.” In a big multinational company every decision is tested. But, “what is liberating is that in Carabao we make decisions that feel intuitively the right decisions to make,” he adds.
The diversity of the role is also attractive. “We all come together and help each other,” he enthuses. “The culture of the organisation is fantastic.” Many of the staff at Carabao have worked at big businesses and became frustrated by the lack of autonomy and accountability. “We are like minded people so we enjoy the freedom, Luck concludes. “And talking about football every day is close to nirvana.”