Prentice turns Asia into Chivas stronghold

From Chinese hip-hop bars to elephant polo in India

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HONG KONG -- During the first half of June, Peter Prentice bar-hopped through 11 cities in mainland China--all in the name of research, of course.

As Hong Kong-based VP, Asia/Pacific for Chivas Brothers, the premium Scotch whisky division of the French wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard, “my job is to know what’s going on, to see what’s happening and pick up the vibe,” said Mr. Prentice, 44. “I have to know as much about every market as our local distributors, but China is changing very fast.”

Fortunately for Chivas, China is changing from a cognac market into Scotch country, because cognac is viewed by the younger set as the tipple of old men and Communist cadres, tainting the French brandy with associations of corruption and bribery. By comparison, brands like Chivas, which controls half of China’s total Scotch market, seem modern and hip.

"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," said Mr. Prentice.

Themed parties, concerts
Chivas has grown into the largest brand among all imported spirits in China, including cognacs and vodkas, through heavy investment in advertising, promotions and events involving music. The brand sponsors concerts featuring famous artists like Norah Jones, and has brought international DJs like Sasha to China.

It also hosts themed parties in bars and discos around the country for up to 1,000 guests. Last year, Chivas capitalized on a rising interest in travel by recreating the atmosphere of Paris, London and Tokyo in a wave of parties that swept through a dozen Chinese cities. Now the brand is traveling through time. In the spring, themed parties transported clubbers to the year 2070. Starting this month, it will take them back to the 1970s--in the Western sense, of course.

Pernod Ricard will not release sales figures, but says China is the second biggest market globally by volume for Chivas after the U.S.. According to the International Wine and Spirit Record (IWSR), the company sold 300,000 nine-liter cases of Chivas in China in 2004, compared to about half a million cases in America.

“There is still some room between China and the U.S., but if we continue on the same trend, I think China can become the number one market for Chivas by the end of this decade,” said Julien Hemard, Pernod Ricard’s Shanghai-based marketing director for China.

China: significant business
In the past couple of years, Mr. Hemard said, “China has grown from a small base into significant business for us. The country has seen tremendous economic growth, which means people have more income and are more able to afford our products. They also are open to Western brands, and want to show their success and one way to do that is to purchase imported brands and products.”

It wasn’t always this way. When Mr. Prentice began traveling in Asia in 1986, as Justerini & Brook’s London-based export manager for J&B whisky in South Africa and Asia, the focus was on India, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. China was an insignificant whisky market.

With Chivas since 1997, Mr. Prentice now spends half his time in China, but he retains a nostalgic fondness for India. During a scouting trip there in 1986, he had a chance encounter in Nepal with Jim Edwards, a former Olympic tobaggoner in the early stages of building a new sport, elephant polo, an idea he hatched in a bar in St. Moritz four years earlier.

“Jim told me I should sponsor elephant polo,” said Mr. Prentice. “It all started with a simple trade, two banners during a game for two cases of whisky, which I believe he distributed as Christmas presents to clients.”

Although elephant polo is “bloody good fun,” said Mr. Prentice, a rugged sportsman from the U.K., “it was also a networking opportunity. We needed to get influential people drinking whisky, from the Raj of Jaipur on down. This approach works in every emerging market in Asia, even one as big as India. And in India, those people play elephant polo.”

The sport has fit the Chivas brand so well, it has evolved into a full-blown marketing platform for the Scotch brand in South Asia. “Elephant polo is a “glamorous, exclusive sport, which is perfect for the Chivas brand attitude which is focused on sharing, enjoying life and the pleasures of spontaneity. It works perfectly with our ad campaign slogan, ‘This is the Chivas Life,’” said Mr. Prentice.

Cheat Sheet

Who? Peter Prentice, Hong Kong-based VP, Asia/Pacific for Chivas Brothers, the premium Scotch whisky division of Pernod Ricard

Favorite drink? Manhattan Chivas: 2 shots Chivas Regal, 1 shot each sweet vermouth and dry vermouth, a dash of Grand Marnier, served with orange twist

Favorite Hong Kong restaurant? The Mandarin Grill at the Mandarin Oriental hotel

Favorite Hong Kong hangout? The Lobster Bar at the Shangri-la hotel

Advice for playing elephant polo? Develop eye-ball coordination, know your elephant and find a good mahout driver.

Top tip for foreign marketers in China? Have patience, and don't tell people there how things are done back home.

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