Sanjiv Gajiwala, Vice President of Marketing at Mike's Hard Lemonade

By: Joey Haar - Mar 28, 2017
References: linkedin & mikeshard
Though alcoholic beverage is in many ways a traditional industry, Mike's Hard Lemonade continues to make a name for itself thanks to creative and innovative products. Trend Hunter spoke with Sanjiv Gajiwala, Mike's Hard's Vice President of Marketing, about generating those innovations.

TH: How do you and your team generate great ideas? Do you have certain rituals to make creativity happen?

SG: A lot of what we do is engage in regular and routine challenge and collaborative sessions. On our social strategy and our communication strategy we spend the time getting together regularly -- and not always with the same group of people -- to look at what we’re doing, what we aren’t doing, what our competitors are doing, what the people who aren’t even in our category are doing. Then we create ideas, question their strategies, apply them to our own, and think about how we can do things better.

I think that’s a core piece of everything we do from a marketing and collaboration standpoint at Mike’s, because we’re not ones to stay in same place very long. Being in the category that we’re in, which is flavored malt beverage, it’s almost always about innovation. Consumers are always looking for new tastes, new flavors, what’s on trend. So for us, being on the forefront of what flavors to offer is really critical as well.

In addition to working with the standard liquid development team here or companies that are flavor experts, we engage a different group. We run a contest where all of our employees can submit flavor recipes for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and we’ll try them as a group. They submit a fully fleshed out recipe and a mood board for packaging inspiration, and then people vote and we ask the designers of the top ten recipes to actually make batches. Then everyone in the office has a big day where we try the ten different recipes, and the three best go to our liquid team to be formulated as commercially viable products that we choose from there. We make it fun, make it different, and come up with ideas that we might not normally have thought of. Now some of them are quite foul... but some of them are great. It’s a great way to make sure the ideas aren’t limited to the people in marketing who are just sort of sitting here. It’s everyone that’s out there and where they’re engaging and what their experiencing, letting that be our inspiration.

What are some barriers to innovation? How do you get around them?

The biggest barrier for us is that our category is challenging. Beer and alcohol is maybe the most highly regulated category in the US consumer goods market. There are 3,000 counties in the US and all 3,000 have slightly different rules on alcohol marketing and alcohol products. So our challenge for innovation as a national company is how do we continue to make products and innovations that apply to everybody but are within the constraints of the marketplace that we’re in. That’s even driven by the explosion of craft brewing and smaller suppliers, so space in retail is even more limited. There are something like 4,000 breweries in the US today and 15,000 SKUs available. So it’s just a massively competitive, confusing place. How do you bring innovation that’s truly unique when you have that much going on? And how do you stand out and gain consumer excitement and engagement with something that is unique?

How do you identify trends? What resources do you and your team use to spot trends and insights?

We have global trend spotters in different cities who help us identify what’s going on around the world; we use sites like Trend Hunter and other futurist, global trend information to help inform us; we leverage external resources and partners like agencies and companies that specialize in the categories we’re involved in to help inform us and guide us -- those are the big things we do. And then we look to other categories for inspiration.

Do you have specific rituals for resetting to be creative?

There’s actually a practice I’ve put in place that’s part of my everyday ritual. I find time every day to pause, reflect, and reset for the next task. That’s something that I like to do personally, and then as a group we flow by the rhythm of our sales calendar which gives us the opportunity to take a break and start over again. But for me it’s about reading something that’s completely off topic and unrelated to my role or industry, and having that switch my brain into a different mindset.

Has there ever been an instance where another industry has influenced an innovation at your company?

Our latest innovation that we launched, White Claw Hard Seltzer, was really driven by that. I was reading about a non-alcohol category and the rise of sparkling water. It was an article about advertising agencies and how they’re highly indexed against sparkling water consumption, and that helped us see bigger opportunities for that brand in terms of reaching consumers we weren’t initially targeting.

What are some examples of things you can do to create a culture of innovation?

The things that I try to do are in making sure everyone, regardless of level or experience, has an opportunity to engage or provide feedback -- basically have an opinion -- and then be heard. And I also believe, especially with my team, in rotating people through functions and projects and brands so that they’re not just trapped in one way of thinking or one mode for too long. I think that helps them become better businesspeople and better marketers.

Describe the future.

The future of the alcoholic beverage industry is going to be really interesting because all of the disruption that’s happening in all these other categories has yet to really hit alcoholic beverage. There’s certainly the craft beer movement, which is a pretty major disruption, but things like Uber or delivery services or mobile apps haven’t really impacted how people buy and consume alcoholic beverage. You still drink a beer the same way you drank a beer 100 years ago: at a bar, or in your house, with your friends. That hasn’t fundamentally changed. I think there’s some change happening with consumer-centric behaviors, and as virtual reality and social media continue to take over a larger share of our lives, that’ll be an interesting shift. And I think that part is related to how people buy: is it a grocery store or a liquor store? It’s just totally different.

You also have consumers who are willing to explore and try to create more by themselves than they have in the past, and that’s going to change the nature of how people interact with flavored products. Are you just going to be fine with the choices that are available to you? Or are you going to hack them in your own way?

Another that I think is really interesting, in the US at least, is that as different vices become legal, like marijuana, how does that change what a beverage is? And how does that counteract the idea that people want to live healthier lives?