Last year, Craig Clarkson moved from Heineken to become off-trade director at C&C Group. He talks to Lucy Britner about premiumisation, the power of convenience and the road to Deposit Return Schemes
From Magnums to Magners, Craig Clarkson has a long history in FMCG. He started in the industry on the Bass graduate programme where he worked on Britvic and the Robinsons and Pepsi brands, a gig that included the launch of Fruit Shoot, and at Unilever, where he was involved with brands including Magnum ice cream.
He highlights key themes from these early days that have stuck with him throughout his career.
“It’s where we first started talking about category management and learning the importance of being able to understand the wider insights in the category and bring things to market that are really meaningful and make a difference to the existing proposition,” he says.
“I feel like this has sort of been the story of my entire career.”
Within that context, Clarkson mentions another key theme of his career: premiumisation. He talks about his tenure at Scottish & Newcastle (later acquired by Heineken), which saw the launch of Bulmers cider. He says at the time it was “essentially a ‘me-too’ to Magners and was able to premiumise the total market”.
MOVING TO C&C
Clarkson’s last role at Heineken was chief transformation officer, where he helped to steer the business through Covid.
“I was really impressed by the scale of ambition at C&C Group,” he says of his decision to join the company. His first task at C&C was to “pull together what were disparate parts of the business and drive synergies”, he says.
Clarkson looks after four teams within the business – high-end wine merchants Walker & Wodehouse, Bibendum, the international business and the beer business, which includes flagship brand Tennent’s, as well as Menabrea, Heverlee and onsite craft brewery Drygate.
One of Clarkson’s first initiatives was to host the inaugural C&C trade conference, to bring teams across these parts of the business together.
“We’re talking 50 people or so, but it has been four or five small teams of around 10 or 15 people. Now they can start to feel like they’re part of the C&C ambition.
“That was the first time it really hit home that something’s really possible here and really exciting. You could feel the energy in the room.”
He says one of the key takeaways from the event is that all of the divisions are talking about similar consumption occasions. “Whether it’s cider, beer or wine, the typical shopper just doesn’t exist, but typical shopping occasions do.
“You’re talking to the same person who’s, on the one hand, buying Champagne or sparkling wine for a party and then the next day is quite happy with a standard beer for an everyday occasion. So, actually being in a unique position to be able to understand the full repertoire of drinks and to be able to make propositions across the total piece, I think, will be quite exciting.”
Turning to the brands, Clarkson teases some big plans for Magners this year.
“We will be bringing some innovation to market on Magners to try to refresh the brand a little bit. I think possibly during Covid, the challenge was about getting and maintaining supply and keeping it on shelf. Now it’s time for a little bit of renovation and a little bit of a kick into innovation.”
C&C’s flagship beer, Tennent’s, is also set for innovation following a Christmas campaign and the installation of a new marketing director, Clarkson says. Meanwhile, the company is looking to replicate the Scottish success for its Heverlee beer brand south of the border.
THE POWER OF THE OFF-TRADE
Turing from brands to channels and, following the pandemic, Clarkson believes paying attention to all channels has become more important. He notes that Molson Coors’ Madri beer brand, for example, was “immediately available everywhere”. He says that launching or investing in a product means it has to be available in all channels, “whether that be on or off-trade, and it has to be available for all the occasions, whether it’s a premium occasion at home or a premium occasion out” because trends are coming and going a lot quicker.
Within the off-trade, he highlights the changing face of convenience. He believes convenience retailers have “carved a real niche for themselves as being the place where you can buy premium drinks and go for innovation where you can have a dialogue or an interaction with a drinks fixture and feel quite satisfied with it”.
As we face into 2023, Clarkson points out a few headwinds, notably rising costs across the board. He also flags the implementation of the Deposit Return Scheme in Scotland. He is keen to stress that, while C&C is embracing the scheme, there is a need for clarity.
“We’re going to have 160 million vessels affected by DRS,” he explains. “We are big supporters of everything that helps reduce litter and has positive effects on the environment. That said, we see enormous challenges between now and when the scheme will go live.”
He estimates that DRS will cost the business £3 million in producer fees alone, “before any cost of complexity, artwork, labelling etc is considered”. And then there’s the reality of different schemes across the UK, which will also complicate matters.
“We’re fans of the scheme, but we’d be much happier if there was one DRS across the UK,” he adds.
As our interview comes to a close, Clarkson is keen to mention C&C’s partnership with the Big Issue. He says the company “purposely chose a partner that we’d be able to address some of the harder issues with – around addiction, mental health, poverty and homelessness”. The tie-up includes vendor days at C&C’s offices as well as creating sheltered pitches for Big Issue vendors and holding fundraising events.
Beyond that, Clarkson mentions both a mentor scheme for vendors and employment packages. “It’s a real coming of age for C&C in terms of recognising our responsibility as a bigger organisation. That was one of the things that made me quite proud to decide to come and work here.”