#21interviews: Be deliberate in listening

by Louise Burgers. We all need to be deliberate in listening to employees and consumers, says Zizwe Vundla, marketing director of Diageo SA.

by Louise Burgers. We all need to be deliberate in listening to employees and consumers, says Zizwe Vundla, marketing director of Diageo South Africa. As a marketing leader, what has challenged her the most over the past months of crisis management, has been dramatic. “The story we will be able to tell when we get out of this, is the story we will have to tell. Even when we couldn’t sell alcohol, I remained pretty upbeat. When you have been in this business a long time, we do things a certain way. But this kind of forced us to find a blank piece of paper and see what works. That has been liberating during this time – we get to challenge conventions and do what is right for the consumer. How many people get to make history? We didn’t have a clue what was coming!”

The alcohol industry went on the offensive after South Africa became one of the few countries to ban the sale of alcohol under hard lockdown during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After two alcohol sale bans within the first three months of lockdown, alcohol brands had to refocus and relook at marketing strategies, taking into account changed consumer behaviour and a growth in new products, such as non-alcoholic brands. Vundla’s key learnings include:

  • What I’ve learnt as regards my consumer: To say it has been dramatic, is an understatement. We went through two alcohol bans. What does that mean as a marketer when you can’t market or sell your product? We were also not allowed to advertise for a month, even when we were allowed to sell. Me and my teams have really used the time to engage with our consumers. Everything from consumer research online to media and marketing touchpoints we always used. It forced us to reenvision everything. We stripped everything back to key business drivers and we do them well. Budgets are tighter too, that is the reality of the ban. We can’t invest as before, but I think our plans are even more exciting than before.
  • What I’ve learnt engaging with my teams, as a leader: This was the toughest one. We were all going through the same lockdown anxiety and challenges that our teams were going through. We were all stuck at home and dealing with the dangers of getting depressed or anxious. I think I am closer to my team. I insisted that the camera was always on. I didn’t care if people hadn’t brushed their hair or were in their PJs. I wanted to see them, and I wanted to make sure they were OK. I was being deliberate about understanding how they were doing, and the first 10 minutes of each online meeting was about that – about keeping my team motivated and happier – and creating those safe spaces, where they could tell me they were not feeling motivated. That is some of the reality of this pandemic – there were some days when you could work 15 hours and some days it was a battle to get out of bed. We needed to listen to our bodies and prioritise our health in these times. And I did the same for my teams to manage motivation and energy. At the end of the day, we are not doing heart surgery, we can’t kill ourselves over our jobs. It doesn’t make sense. And what is so ironic, is that even though we know better, we don’t always listen to ourselves. We don’t always listen to our own advice. Be kind to yourself. Whether you got Covid or not, we were all impacted.

“It is no surprise that the alcohol bans were hard on our industry. First of all, from an alcohol industry point of view, you are employing around a million people, from end-to-end: from suppliers to packaging, our agencies, all these artists we support; 180 000 taverns… It was really devastating. None of us are under any illusion that we are going to make up what we lost any time soon. Our priorities are to fast track recovery; to ensure that we are continuing to put our consumers first, whether it is the innovation we bring, what innovation makes sense, how we market to them, and so on. Consumers are really looking to the world differently and we need to make sure we remain relevant. We can see how hard hit the economy was – so we also need to ask how do we support our partners. It is devastating to see all these restaurants and taverns closed. Whether it is retailers and agency partners – we have been deliberate in shouldering this burden.”

After just one full month of trading after the alcohol ban was lifted, Vundla says they could already see that consumers were falling back on brands they loved and downtrading to what they know. “We are seeing the ‘love’ brands as I call them really pick up. We have seen some of our more mainstream whiskeys pick up as well; and if people are downtrading, they will go for what they know. It is a mixed bag in terms of the different categories. We have also seen people turning to spirits more than ciders and beer; and we all know that South Africa is a huge beer market. But people are afraid of another alcohol ban at some point, so they are buying alcohol that they can store for longer.”

She adds that consumer behaviour changes that were very apparent, was that people were not going out as much, events were limited, and people have less to spend and most will buy food before they buy alcohol. The three biggest consumer changes that have impacted on their brand planning, as Vundla recounts, are:

  • We are seeing consumers demanding more from their brands. As brands we genuinely need to care about what our consumers care about. We can’t sit on the sidelines. Whether it is a fight for an equitable society, or addressing the ills in our society; consumers are looking at us and seeing where we stand on issues and that we are part of the solution.
  • We all want to lead healthier lifestyles, and people are more cognisant about what they put in their bodies. So, what does this mean for us in bringing in new products in the next few years? If you go into most retailers now, you will see more zero and low-alcohol brands in store.
  • How consumers are interacting around media has changed with more home consumption. The surge in social media platforms like TikTok, has turned consumers into content curators and that is shaping brand plans going forward.
Understand your brand truths

“Right now, as we strategise for 2021, despite all the flux, is settle on a few brand truths. Yes, many things have changed, but there will always be those few brand  truths that remain: at the end of the day we know that our consumers are social beings. Whether things are open or not, consumers want to be with other people. They may not do it at a fancy restaurant or a tavern, they may do it at home now. So, what can we do to reach them in their home? We need to create great consumer experiences at home – we help them buy online; we plan for when things reopen; that is what I have grounded my team in. I also make sure they are very close to the data. They need to be closer to the data, whether it is consumer data or other data, as then we can predict faster than anyone else.”

Vundla says what we are going through right now is a teaching moment and we need to make sure we use the opportunity to question how we do business in the past and how we move forward, despite all the madness around us.

“This is what I think will happen in 2021: we will see a mixed bag when it comes to how different businesses and brands perform. What will make the difference in whether we are winning or not, is what we did in the past months. The consumer outlook has changed. If we are still operating from a place that we did before, we won’t win. That has always been the case for marketers. Not everyone is always as agile as they need to be; those which assume it is business as usual, will fall by the wayside. When I think of my own brand, we have stripped things down and we really understand our consumers and I think we will have a good 2021.”

Distell and Diageo South Africa collaborated to promote synergy between players and “constructively promote the growing trend of moderation”, the responsible consumption of alcohol and a move towards healthier lifestyles. The fact is, the alcohol industry in South Africa is a major contributor to the economy; notwithstanding the massive tourism and worldwide brand impact of South Africa’s wine industry. The industry contributed R51 billion in taxes in 2019 – 10% of total tax revenue from indirect taxes for the year; generating R5.7 billion in net export earnings in 2019, bringing in critical foreign exchange. It also directly generated R137 billion (3%) of SA’s GDP in 2019, which is more than the contribution of the entire agriculture and food processing sectors.

Vundla said the focus on responsible marketing had never been more critical. “When consumed responsibly, we know that alcohol can form part of a balanced lifestyle. However, maintaining this balance can be challenging for some consumers, leading to health and social problems. We are working to help solve the challenge of alcohol misuse. While marketing alcohol in a responsible manner is one element of this, we are working hard to educate especially at-risk groups about the dangers of binge drinking, drinking and driving, and underage drinking, and to develop a responsible drinking culture. Diageo’s Responsible Drinking Media Awards, launched in 2011, are part of this, and supports media in helping promote responsible consumption.”


For more insights from retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:


#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer, by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com.

#21interviews: Brands need to get brave, says Bozoma Saint John, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Netflix.

#21interviews: The power of being purpose-led will drive brand value, by Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer Africa and the Middle East, Kantar.

#21interviews: Plan for growth in 2021, says Herman Botha, Group General Manager, PNA Group.

#21interviews: Next year will be all about authentic visual immersion, by Craig Bellingham, Founder & CEO, Studio[K]irmack.

#21interviews: Covid has created a brand vulnerability, says Elouise Brink, Senior Marketing Manager, Country Road, Woolworths Holdings.

#21interviews: Reimagining a better world without the inequality of ‘normal’, with Economist and Author of the post-pandemic book, FutureNEXT, Dr Iraj Abedian, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Embrace technology at all levels, says Thabani Maluleka, Business Development Director for Rogerwilco.

#21interviews: It will not be business as usual, by Dave Nemeth, Trend Forecaster & Founder of at Trend Forward.

#21interviews: Lessons from an unprecedented year in retail, by Jonathan Hurvitz, CEO, Teljoy.

#21interviews: Beware ‘Covid fatigue’, by Guy Yehiav, General Manager, Zebra Analytics, part of Zebra Technologies.



Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of RetailingAfrica.com. She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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