Bacardi's radio daze

You're the world's best-selling rum, but vodka rules in Britain. How to catch up? By launching branded radio stations that pump out cool tunes to your key target market. Ian Burrell tunes in to B-Live
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The Independent Online

Nevertheless, that's where John Burke bases himself to oversee the global marketing strategy of the biggest rum brand in the world. "There are fantastic creative agencies here and great flight links," is his slightly glum explanation as to why he's not doing a salsa with a senorita in the Caribbean.

Still, Burke - and everyone else - can now experience "El ritmo de Bacardi" without heading into Surrey, after the launch last Thursday morning of the brand's new radio station B-Live, which streams a mix of sexy dance music to listeners via their PCs or 3G mobile phones.

Bacardi is one of the best-known names in drinks, but Burke, the company's global brand director, is convinced that traditional methods of marketing are becoming stale and that radical measures, such as setting up radio stations, are required to interest consumers.

"When you look at the existing media landscape and how it's changing, what we are doing at the moment will become more limited," he says. "This is the first of several projects that will build our capability in new media."

Bacardi says it has spent a whopping $1m (£570,000) on this project, including hiring the music consultant Adam Dew-hurst (who has worked with the music magazines Sleazenation and Jockey Slut) and striking deals with star DJs such as Dimitri from Paris, The Unabombers and Ashley Beedle to record exclusive mixes.

The only problem at the moment is that Bacardi doesn't have any mobile-phone operators as partners, which means that consumers will face bills for tuning in, according to how much "data" they use up. For a pay-as-you-go user, this could mean a £6 charge for a 15-minute listen, though others with monthly bills would pay about 50p for the same time.

Bacardi hopes that UK phone operators will quickly provide consumers with US-style packages that offer unlimited data (T-Mobile has just introduced one in the UK for £7.50 a month), but in the meantime, B-Live radio faces a difficult first few months.

Burke is undeterred. "It's important that we get it out there, get it working. This whole area of 3G is about to enter a period of explosive growth. We have had early conversations with a number of players in the mobile phone business and they are at the point of doing something really big," he says. "It is important for us to get out there and get some experience so that when things happen we can exploit them."

By "demonstrating commitment ahead of the curve", Burke believes Bacardi will be well placed to supply content to UK mobile phone carriers, who currently use less than 10 per cent of the 3G capacity available.

Enquiries reveal that the carriers Bacardi has been talking to are Vodafone and Orange. Other discussions, aimed at making B-Live an easy-to-use embedded feature on handsets, have taken place with Motorola and Sony Ericsson. In the meantime, there's always online.

The initiative will complement a Young & Rubicam ad campaign in June, which will move things on from the Latin Quarter. Burke says the ads will "rebalance the values of the brand," and defines these values as "free spirit and the ability to see spontaneous opportunities and act on them".

The radio project, developed over the past 12 months with Cake Media, will strengthen - and be strengthened by - Bacardi's presence at music events such as the V Festival, where its B-Bar tents and marquees are being restyled under the B-Live brand. Bacardi, which shifts 19 million cases of white rum a year, puts on music events in 45 countries, many of which will be broadcast on B-Live radio.

The station has no DJ chat, no news and no ads. Burke says: "If you are having a home party and want a cool soundtrack, it works perfectly in that environment."

No ads means no revenue stream, but Burke thinks the goodwill from giving something back will justify the expenditure. "The important thing for us is that we have brand impact."

Chris Searle, Bacardi's vice-president of European external affairs, explains the project in terms of adding value and doing something different. "Today's consumers are very choosy about what they want to pick up on in media messaging, and this is why innovation is so important."

Founded by Don Facundo de Bacardi in 1862 in Santiago de Cuba, the family business was displaced by the Castro revolution in 1960. It has relocated to distilleries in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Mexico.

The UK is Bacardi's most important European market (there is a bottling plant in Southampton), where it competes mainly with vodka brands. Burke says: "These are interesting times. In the UK, vodka's growth has been phenomenal. It's the drink of choice on Coronation Street."

Bacardi, he says, has the opportunity to mark itself out as something different to the army of vodka drinkers. "Our focus is on drinkers who are forming their drinking repertoires, from the legal drinking age up to 29. We are trying to create a relevant role within that consumer's lifestyle by presenting the brand as an attractive proposition." The radio station, he hopes, will help with that. Two sister stations (the first specialising in hip-hop and R&B) are being lined up.

Bacardi's global marketing department will leave Weybridge and relocate to central London in summer. Burke talks dreamily of the Bahamas-based company's other "exotic locations".

Can he ever see a day when Bacardi returns to Cuba? "We don't have the opportunity now, but the family still owns the business and I think there would be a desire to see what opportunities would be offered in the future," he says. "If circumstances made it possible, we'd be very keen to see what we could do."