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So, You Don't Drink and You Want to Work at Brown-Forman?

Marketer of Jack Daniel's and Other Liquors Goes Out Of Its Way to Include Everyone

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It's Monday at the Bourbon Street Cafe. On today's menu is Old Forester marinated flank steak and the Sonoma Crimson Cooler, a cocktail made from Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort and orange and pineapple juice.

But this isn't just any café -- it's the corporate cafeteria at Brown-Forman. Serving booze at lunch is a long-standing tradition at the Louisville, Ky.-based maker of Jack Daniel's and other liquor brands, just as alcohol is woven into the corporate culture of most brewers and spirits marketers. At Brown-Forman, an internal website includes a message welcoming employees to "enjoy one B-F product drink with their meal" noting that it is "in the spirit of being great brand builders."

Brown-Forman's corporate cafeteria offers staffers one B-F product drink with their meal.
Brown-Forman's corporate cafeteria offers staffers one B-F product drink with their meal. Credit: Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt

But what if you don't drink?

The booze marketer has begun serving up solutions to that problem thanks to an employee group formed specifically to meet the needs of nondrinkers at the company. The group, which is called Spirit -- for "Showing Pride In Respecting Individual Tastes" -- is part of a larger diversity program at the company that focuses on the needs of a range of employee and consumer communities including LGBT, women, veterans, Latinos, African-Americans, young professionals and baby boomers.

All-volunteer teams called "employee resource groups," or ERGs, meet regularly to network and brainstorm on projects aimed at serving each community within the company. Some of the groups have even spurred consumer-marketing ideas.

The Spirit group includes about 90 employees and is open to drinkers and nondrinkers. It is unique in the alcohol industry, according to Brown-Forman organizers who say that they have not been able to find a similar program at other companies.

The group isn't meant to replicate addiction-support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather, it is "focused on making sure that being a nondrinker doesn't impede your success here and that you feel like it's a welcoming place," said La Toya Smith, the company's diversity and inclusion specialist, who helps oversee the ERG program. Liquor is the "air that we breathe. It's the water we swim in," she said. But "if you are nondrinker, it's different. So as a company, how can we be conscious of that?"

Initiatives include ensuring that company-hosted receptions and events -- which not surprisingly, feature plenty of booze -- also make nonalcoholic "mocktails" available. At the events, tent cards are distributed noting that the company "celebrates your choice not to drink," Ms. Smith said. At the employee cafe, the company now clearly marks food that contains alcohol, and makes available mocktails along with the cocktails of the day.

For a booze marketer, that is a fairly innovative concept. Or as Ms. Smith said, it "pushes against the culture, and makes it better."

Serving Up Diversity -- and Marketing Ideas

Brown-Forman launched its Employee Resource Group diversity program in 2009 and as of today about 25% of the company's roughly 4,000 global employees volunteer in at least one of eight groups -- boomers, LGBT, veterans, Latino, African-American, women, young professionals and nondrinkers. Their mission is to attract and develop a diverse workforce.

Here are some examples of what some of the groups have accomplished.

Boomers: This group targeting baby boomers recently persuaded the company to more actively market Southern Comfort to boomers. A pilot program, including Facebook ads, targeted people living in communities such as Sun City, Ariz.

LGBT: This group, which goes by the name BYOD, for "Bring Your Own Diversity," focuses on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender communities and their allies. The group has played a role in crafting Brown-Forman's progressive benefits package, which includes benefits for transgender employees and their dependents, including coverage of gender-reassignment surgeries.

Veterans: Known as "Brave," the group has partnered with a charity called Active Heroes that assists active-duty military, veterans and their families with coping skills.

Women: Called "Grow," for Growing Remarkable and Outstanding Women, members served on a consumer-advisory panel that included taste testing of liquor products in development as a kind of internal market test. The initiative has spread company-wide.

Young Professionals: The Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey brand recently used the group as a sounding board for ads and artwork to get a pulse on millennials.
–E.J. Schultz

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