Oliver Balch speaks to the Indian-American CEO of Pernod Ricard North America about the importance of challenging diversity blind spots

Ann Mukherjee doesn’t need anyone to tell her why diversity is important. Born in Kolkata, schooled in the United States, and with 30 years’ experience marketing some of the world’s best-known brands, she has lived these issues up close and personal. 

Not that she’s allowed the barriers of racism, sexism, or any other “ism” to get in her way. After lengthy stints at Kraft Foods Group, PepsiCo and S.C. Johnson & Son (where she finished as global chief commercial officer), 56-year-old Mukherjee became chairperson and chief executive officer of Pernod Ricard North America in December 2019.

As an Indian-American woman in the alcohol industry, she is a dual rarity. By her own reckoning, levels of senior female leadership in the sector are three times lower than average for U.S. business, and that is measuring from a low base. 

“The amount of boardrooms I sit in where I’m the only woman, let alone the only woman of colour – it’s still so prevalent,” she says. “So, for me personally, if I don’t do this (champion diversity), I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.”

The running joke in the industry is of all-male teams designing and marketing women-oriented products

That aside, Mukherjee is in no doubt about the direct relationship between building an inclusive culture and delivering on her fiduciary responsibilities. 

Success for Pernod Ricard, which counts global brands such as Malibu, Beefeater, Jameson and Absolut in its portfolio, centres on identifying, and then satisfying, people’s wants and desires. 

“We now live in a world where businesses are really all about monetising predictive human behaviour. It's behavioural economics … and part of the science of human behaviour is knowing that the consumer base demanding our products is massively diversified.” 

The running joke in the industry, which Mukherjee says has more than a grain of truth, is of all-male teams designing and marketing women-oriented products. 

Ann Mukherjee is chairperson and chief executive officer of Pernod Ricard North America.

But that’s just one of the diversity blind spots. Marketing in the drinks industry is historically a young person’s game, yet Mukherjee points out that the over 50s account for more than half of alcohol consumption in the United States.

“These people feel discriminated against because there are products made that they can't read. There are products made that they can't eat. There are products made that they can't open.” 

The response, however, is not to set up an oldies-only subdivision. Today, older drinkers are trying out “young people” brands, just as Asian-Americans are stepping over into markets historically associated with African-Americans, and women are gaining an appetite for “male” drinks, Mukherjee says. 

This isn't about one group versus another. It's about balancing all the voices that are reflective of the communities you serve

So, does that mean all brands have to be all things to all people? Not a bit of it, says Mukherjee. Expect individual brands to continue representing their own set of values, but to make them resonate with as wide a spectrum of people as possible.

The point strikes on one of Mukherjee’s favourite dictums about diversity and inclusion: namely, “If you get the ‘I’ right, then the ‘D’ follows”. 

Marketeers need to have an intuitive sense of the people they are marketing to, she argues, so brand teams should bring a mix of different perspectives into the same room. 

Essentially, it comes down to “balance”, she says, the theme of the company’s Better Balance programme, an umbrella initiative to promote equality across its workforce. 

“This isn't about one group versus another. It's about balancing all the voices that are reflective of the communities you serve.” 

Nor is diversity and inclusion about assimilation, she says. Rather, it’s about brands knowing what they stand for – and then going out and actually standing for them. 

She gives the example of Absolut. Back in the 1970s, Pernod Ricard’s premium vodka brand campaigned vocally in favour of gay rights. Today, it is channelling its “provocateur” spirit in new ways, most recently running a nationwide ad campaign on the contentious subject of sexual consent. (As one of the #SexResponsibly ads puts it: ‘Buying Someone a Drink Doesn’t Buy You a Yes’). 

“Today, you’re talking to a whole new generation that wasn't even alive back in the 70s,” she explains. “But because you understand the issues of today's diverse culture, you can retell that same story in a very contemporary way.”

Consumers today just don't want to buy your brands, they want to buy into your brands

Wading into the culture wars is fraught with risk, of course. Mukherjee warns that brands who jump into this space without a credible commitment to the cause will be called out. Her advice? “If you don't have a right to speak, don't speak.” 

She adds: “Consumers today just don't want to buy your brands, they want to buy into your brands … we live in a transparent world on the internet. They know what you do. So don't try to be a poser or a pretender, because that will ruin your brand faster than anything.” 

So, what about a brand without a long heritage in the politics of cultural inclusion and minority rights? Mukherjee has three pieces of advice. First, design for tomorrow. Building a diverse organisation for five or 10 years hence generally involves putting in place the training, recruitment and mentorship programmes today. 

Ideas around what people drink based on age, gender and ethnic group have evolved. (Credit: Pixabay )

The second point is related: actively support people from diverse backgrounds to become leaders. In Pernod Ricard’s case, it works with BetterUp, a one-to-one coaching specialist that offers employees support on a full range of personal and professional development challenges. 

“If we truly want diversity, we have to find what I call ‘mass personalisation’. We have to find a way to help people grow and help people open up perspectives,” she states. 

And while she believes change isn’t happening anywhere near fast enough, her third word of advice is patience. 

If you can appoint the right people immediately, do so. But there’s a danger that rapid promotion could leave individuals without the requisite experience out of their depth.

Not being ‘scared to let people see who I am’ is at the core of Mukherjee’s own success

“There's a lot of people out there that just want to promote for the sake of promoting and that does no one any good because you're not setting the person up for success,” she argues. 

Patience, however, is very different from procrastination. Mukherjee’s own stellar career trajectory is proof of the huge potential that a proactive diversity strategy can have. 

And, finally, a word for those looking to follow her lead? Don’t fret about fitting in, she says. “Not being scared to let people see who I am” is at the core of her own success, she adds. “Because then I’m playing on my toes, not on my heels.”

Main picture credit: Pixabay


Pernod Ricard  Ann Mukherjee  diversity and inclusion  Absolut vodka  drinks industry 

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