It sounds like the beginning of a lame cocktail-party joke, but Peter Prentice, 44, has transformed the unlikely sport of elephant polo into a successful marketing platform for Chivas Regal, a premium blended Scotch whisky, spanning Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The gregarious Hong Kong-based VP, Asia/Pacific for Chivas Brothers, now part of Pernod Ricard, has marketed scotch brands in Asia for almost 20 years through a potent combination of charm, networking skills and savvy marketing, which are particularly evident in his long association with the World Elephant Polo Association.
"Elephant polo is a glamorous, exclusive sport. It's just right for the Chivas brand attitude, which is focused on sharing, enjoying life and the pleasures of spontaneity. It works perfectly with our campaign slogan, `This is the Chivas Life,"' Mr. Prentice said. A rugged sportsman from Lancashire in the U.K., he is also captain of the Chivas Scotland championship elephant polo team.
Although Mr. Prentice has only resided in Asia for the past five years, he has traveled in the region frequently since 1986, when he left a product manager job at United Biscuits for a more lively position at Justerini & Brook in London, export manager for J&B whiskey in South Africa and Asia, namely India, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
"Asia was a very small market for Western spirits at that time, and we didn't think about China in those days at all," he said. Today, Asia/Pacific accounts for about one-third of the world's Scotch sales, and China, a market with "huge potential," has seen up to 25% annual growth in recent years.
During one of his first trips to India two decades ago, in search of local distributors, he had a chance encounter in Nepal with Jim Edwards. A former Olympic tobogganer, Mr. Edwards was developing elephant polo as an accepted sport for India's elite, an idea he hatched in a bar in St. Moritz four years earlier.
"Jim told me I should sponsor elephant polo. It all started with a simple trade, two banners during a game for two cases of whiskey, which I believe he distributed as Christmas presents to clients," Mr. Prentice recalled.
While elephant polo is "bloody good fun," he said, "it is also a great networking opportunity. We needed to get influential people drinking whiskey, from the Raj of Jaipur on down. People don't eat and drink things because of advertising, they do it because someone else told them to try it."
That initial deal two decades ago was altered in 1997, when J&B's owner GrandMet merged with Guinness to form Diageo, a corporate development that proved ill-suited for Mr. Prentice's free-spirited approach to marketing.
"This industry overall is employing commodity experts to handle brands, people who often are not real consumers of the brands they are promoting," scoffed Mr. Prentice, who enjoys the camaraderie of the spirits industry, such as organized tastings across Asia for brand loyalists.
"When he does talks and tastings, he has such enthusiasm; it clearly is more than a job. It's part of his heart. I've only seen that in one other client in my entire career," said Philip Brett, Singapore-based regional managing director of Tequila, the direct marketing arm of Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide, who has worked with Mr. Prentice for the past six years. "He's a very good litmus test for what's going to work. If you can get a marketing idea past Peter, it will work because he's so in touch with the brand," he added.
Mr. Prentice joined Chivas Brothers in 1997 as global PR director, and the company immediately took a strong interest in the elephant polo marketing opportunity, significantly increasing investment and media support behind the event. It even helped expand the sport from an annual world championship to a tour series encompassing Thailand and Sri Lanka.
In 1999, when Mr. Prentice was promoted to VP-Asia/Pacific, he and his wife relocated to Hong Kong. Despite a nostalgic fondness for India, he now spends half his time in mainland China.
"The great phenomenon in recent years has been the emergence of Chivas as the driver of the Scotch market in Chinese-influenced markets ... where Scotch is now on a roll," Mr. Prentice said.
His favorite drink? Manhattan Chivas: 2 shots Chivas Regal, 1 shot each sweet vermouth and dry vermouth, dash of Grand Marnier and an orange twist
His favorite Hong Kong restaurant? The Mandarin Grill at the Mandarin Oriental hotel
Favorite Hong Kong hangout? The Lobster Bar at the Shangri-la hotel
How to become champion elephant polo player? Develop eye-ball coordination, know your elephant and find a good mahout.
His top tip for marketing in China? Have patience, and don't tell people in China how things are done back home.