An interview with Patrón’s CMO on how they leveraged their little-known production and sustainability processes to challenge consumers to revisit the brand and build new market share with foodies

Being a connoisseur of wine is nothing new. Beer began to beat its frat boy wrap about a decade ago with the rise of craft brew; it should come as no surprise that craft spirits have been following suit. The epicurean food movement has shifted consumer perception of how they consume their alcohols of choice. People are starting to mindfully imbibe and to actually taste their alcohol and closely pay attention to how it accentuates the fare that graces their plates.

Earlier this fall, I turned on my Amazon Echo and found recipes for unique tequila drinks that I could pair with a dinner for friends as I prepared my own take on Mexicali meets Pacific Northwest cuisine. As I dug into Patron’s maker process, I found that the company was working on becoming the craft brand that PSFK has advised all companies to strive to be, as part of our Future of Retail 2017 report. I sat down with Lee Applbaum, Chief Marketing Officer at Patrón Spirits International to understand the company’s  sustainability and production processes.

For hundreds of years, wine was something you could be considered a connoisseur of. Then it was beer, now it is spirits. What’s the reason for this?

The rise of craft and consumption plays to broader culinary trends happening in society. The whole farm-to-table movement, honest eating and knowing what’s in your food has consumers taking the need for knowledge into anything that touches or goes into their bodies. Consumers want substance to back up style, especially in the luxury sector with legacy brands such as ours.

How has the spirits trend affected tequila?

For generations, sommeliers were your wine experts, in the past decade, the mixologist has become much more elevated in stature and holds the same expert respect. They direct consumers in the design of beautiful drinks. The cocktail story, what’s in the glass, where all the ingredients originate overlaid with the process to creation has consumers enthralled. Why do you think bar carts are rampant in mainstream media?

That enthusiast was being lost in tequila. When you think about tequila, it was thought of as the bottom shelf drink with a worm in the bottle. Many people don’t know that tequila is a handcrafted spirit made for thousands of years and it has one of the most complex crafting processes in the world. Because of this, we wanted to change that dynamic and the mixology culture helps fuel that.

If you could paint a portrait? What would a modern-day tequila connoisseur look like?

We do a lot of consumer segmentation and spend time trying to understand our customers. People enjoy tequila for a variety of reasons. We have two segments –– the Bros and the Knows. Both consumer groups are gender balanced, have similar household income and ethnographies. They are more focused on badge value, out for good times, more interested in what the brand says about them. The Knows are your foodies and spirit aficionados. The Knows want to know the entire backstory of the spirit, challenge all the marketing hyperbole and validate information with third party sources. They travel a lot and would visit distilleries first hand to simply confirm the value they place on a brand.

How have you evolved the story of the production process?

We now enable our customers to experience all parts of the production process through the digital tools available today. We implemented a VR program depicting our production process at the Hacienda.

  • They are able to explore our distillery in Jalisco. Want to see that we take great care and pick ingredients by hand? It’s there.
  • Want to see how the 1500 employees live and work in the local community and how we support a higher quality of life than the standard? It’s there.
  • Want to see how the same set of family farmers has grown our agave for generations? It’s there.

While we are the biggest ultra-premium brand, we have the roots and processes of the smallest artisan maker. We haven’t and wouldn’t change the process. We use small brick ovens, copper pot stills, pinewood fermenters and chop our agave by hand.

The Mexican government has recognized Patrón actually as one of the industry leaders for waste reduction. Has the sustainable movement impacted your processes?

We’ve always outpaced sustainable standards; 100% of the waste created from the Patrón production process is recycled through state-of-the-art compost and liquid recycling facilities. We designed that from day one.

A great example is how we reprocess water as tequila requires a large quantity of it. 70% of our stillage is turned into clean, reusable water used for cooling towers and watering our agave fields – the remaining 30% combined with used bagasse is created to make organic compost. We also welcome other distilleries to come in and treat their waste on our property.

The reverse osmosis filtration systems used to re-oxygenate the water before it is introduced to compost, were designed at our own costs and put into place by our founder and owner John Paul DeJoria because he knew that we couldn’t ruin the land we relied on. We didn’t have to do that by any standard or regulation, we did it because we wanted to.

Who are the actual makers of Patron? Tell me about the families –– the farmers:

We have 150 corporate staff and 1500 Mexico employees. Those employees are our heroes. The are literally our rockstars. They are skilled makers with a variety of talents that are proud, intelligent and efficient.

Patrón also contracts farmers who have been supplying agave and ingredients since the brands’ inception – the farm owners have the best understanding of weather and growing conditions for our product so we have always ensured the relationships remain fruitful for all parties involved. We never undercut prices or leave growers in a position where they can’t continue to provide quality crops.

In the last five years, your advertising tactics have changed. How is a more subtle, refined approach working?

Consumers are smart. Traditional methods have a place but this new level of transparency has brought about the need to subtly insert yourself into a dialogue about your brand. It’s why we did the Amazon Echo content partnership this past spring to deliver a cocktails library.

The beauty of a digital ecosystem is that we can see how people are responding. Sentiment and engagement are key. We build on opportunity as we see from customer reaction. For example, we are going to work on more content like this, that is about taste tequila and will also build upon our VR work and continue our private chef dinners. All these things help us respond to misperceptions in a way that helps us challenge consumers to revisit us.

Patron is a challenging brand. A lot of people say it is commercial. Yes, we are commercial, but we feel the way in which we make our tequila is truly unique.