Ryan Tann

Ryan Tann

Creating waves in the drinking industry in Malaysia, Ryan Tann is the marketing manager for Fortier Wines & Spirits. He shares his views about the current drinking trends in Malaysia and his marketing strategies for new spirit brands like Patron, Caorunn , Old Pultney and Joseph Cartron.

How long have you been working in the drinks industry?

I have been in the industry for close to 5 years now, starting with Jose Cuervo then moving on to Diageo. I am now with Fortier Wines and Spirits.

What are the brands you are taking care of right now?

I am looking after brands such as Patron, Caorunn, Old Pulteney, Joseph Catron and Two Fingers Tequila.

Those brands can be perceived as quite pricy compared to other spirits of the same kind, what do you say about that?

Quality comes with a price. =)

What is the response so far to these brands in Malaysia? Is the Malaysian market ready for them?

I find that in the Malaysia market, there is a general lack of trust for new brands. But you know, people should always give new brands a chance, they might find some very interesting! The Malaysian market today is a little different from before, due to changes within the consumers themselves. I feel that although the general market is price sensitive, there are still people who are exploring premium spirits though they may not necessarily be willing to drink them all the time because they are pricey. It has created two extremes when it comes to trends: the premium drinkers and the bargain drinkers. Reason being, you either would spend money on buying premium spirits, or you compromise the quality but go for cheap drinks.

How is the market divided between these two types of drinkers?

About 25% of the market consists of premium drinkers, which I think is a good start, as people are starting to know what they are drinking. Eventually, through word of mouth – which is the best marketing tool for spirits brand awareness – the number of premium drinkers will increase.

How do premium drinkers normally like their spirits served?

Depends. Brown spirits drinkers especially are more educated now. Seven to eight years ago, brown spirits were always mixed with Coke or green tea. But now they are often consumed with water, a few ice cubes or on their own.
For white spirits though, we have a long way to go as many white spirits are served in cocktails and the Malaysian market is still very new to this type of drink. That’s why brown spirits are generally more acceptable in this market because they are less complicated in terms of preparation.

Who do you think plays a big role in influencing the consumers when it comes to drinking trends?

The main influencing factor in KL would be the people around a drinker. Everyone knows very little or even nothing when they first start drinking, so when your friend tells you that a drink is nice, you will try it.

If you talk about education, it actually depends on the brand principals to educate the bars. But I must say, that is difficult because people who serve behind the bars nowadays, some are not even bartenders anymore but foreign workers who are not given proper training by the outlets, which merely treat them as bar workers. This mentality in the local F&B industry greatly influences the quality of bars and the drinks they serve. Brand owners like us are working hard into making a difference by providing training to outlets about the history of the brand, how to serve a good cocktail using a particular brand, the costing on a reasonable priced recipe etc.

Another role in the industry that influences the sales of the brands is that of the PR girls in the pubs. If they have tried a brand and liked it, it is likely they will promote that brand to their customers. However, they don’t play a role in education, they influence their customers directly about a brand based on their experience through consuming the spirit, but they have no knowledge of the brand at all most of the times.

What have you – as a brand principal – done so far to educate the bars?

We consistently provide training and workshops whenever there is a new brand in the market by educating the bars about the perfect serve, proportion and mixtures for the brands. We also support bartending competitions, to encourage bartenders to learn and improve their skills and recipes.

Does that mean you give them recipes to follow?

With the Internet, you could actually search out all the recipes needed for cocktails. I do not need to provide recipes. With experience behind the bar, I believe they could create any cocktail they want. It’s an art of mixing.

What makes outlets decide whether to buy your brand or other brands?

Our relationship with the bars! Other than that, it’s how much money we are investing for branding and how cost-effective our products are. Other things like promotions, promoters, gifts with purchase, point of sales materials, brand visibility, even the sale representative for the brands, all play a role. Global branding is very important as well. I think Johnnie Walker has done a great job in that. They managed to attract young consumers through their global campaigns like the Black Circuit event and also their constant presence in the market. There is a saying, ‘If you are not in sight, you are not in mind.’ Also, I believe it’s easier to sell your product if you have knowledge and confidence.

What do you think about the people who buy a bottle just to get into a club with their friends or buy a bottle disregarding the brand?

It is the face value, everyone wants to be seen with ‘a bottle’. Malaysians have this mentality that “The more I drink the better a drinker I am”. Everyone tries to prove that to others by opening more bottles.  But then again, they are the customers, they drink however way they want to. The drinks industry in Malaysia is very challenging, it’s like a puzzle and it’s competitive. Personally, I think the Malaysian market is one of the toughest in Asia.

How so?

When I was doing other brands I was also handling other countries in the region.  Outside of Malaysia, the usual complain is parallel stock (stocks brought in by a brand owner but designed to be sold in a different country, which are subsequently brought to a country where the stocks were not intended for sale) which means that it is harder for us to reach our sales target in that country because these importers of parallel stock are taking part of our pie in the local market. This happens around the world, but in Malaysia, because our taxes are so high, some ‘local brands’ started to appear.

We also face counterfeit brands. That’s why this is the toughest market in the region, because of all these problems. However, though the population in Malaysia that consumes alcohol is not as high as other neighbouring countries, we still have a fairly high margin of spirits consumption. 

What do you think about the role of the outlets in drinking responsibility and setting drinking limits?

Part of the drinking culture in Malaysia is that paying customers go to bars to get happy and if you try to stop them from doing that, what’s the point of them going to your bar? Drinking is about people, you can’t control them. To the outlet, it’s business. For the Chinese drinkers in general, we might get a bit wild while drinking but we get very happy. It’s not about what we are drinking, it is about who we are drinking with.

How are spirit sales competing with beer sales in Malaysia?

We have different market. The beer sales in Malaysia are tremendous, everyone who starts drinking always starts with beer. Beer is refreshing and seem cheaper than spirits, you can’t really compare both. When you are out with a couple of friends for a few drinks, you don’t open a bottle, you order a few jugs because it’s cheaper to start off and you don’t feel the pinch. Spirit sales are stronger in KTV lounges or clubs. Even then, people usually start with beer first and then get into spirits. But if you ask me, I think that spirits are much cheaper than beer. Beer in volume looks a lot but the consumption is fast and easy because you always have a perception that it is cheap. A few jugs will be equivalent to a bottle of spirits, bearing in mind that you don’t have custody over beer like you do for spirits. And beer goes flat after a while.

Do you think improving the cocktail scene will help spirit sales?

Of course, every movement counts. It may not change anything now but it takes time. The cocktail scene needs to be improved. Again, making cocktails requires passion, and how many good bartenders are there now in KL? What needs to be changed is that outlets should know and start using genuine spirits and say no to counterfeit brands. It should be the bars’ responsibility to ensure that their customers are not drinking anything unsafe.

What advice would you give to consumers in differentiating good and bad cocktails?

Simple. In any bar, ask what their house pours are. I always believe imported spirits tells a difference. If you wish to have great cocktails, visit specialty cocktails bars like SkyBar, Tate or twentyone. Also, read more in magazines on the night scene.


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