by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) “It starts in Lebanon,” says Charl Bassil, vice-president of global marketing for premium vodka brand, Absolut, of his own story. “And it’s an important part of the story, because a lot of it is about reconciling multiple identities.” Having recently relocated to Stockholm, Sweden, to take up his position at Absolut, Bassil previously served as marketing director* of Pernod Ricard SA for nearly six years, following over a decade at SABMiller.
“Bridge between cultures”
Bassil’s father moved to South Africa after World War II, settling in Klerksdorp. It was there that he met Charl’s mother, also of Lebanese descent, and together they worked in agriculture. Bassil, an only child, was born in 1973, growing up in a large migrant community which, he says, was a key factor in the formation of his own identity: “When you’re the bridge between cultures, you feel like you have to work harder to prove yourself.”
Some people know they want to be in marketing from the get-go. Others find themselves there after sowing a few different career seeds. Bassil falls into the latter camp. An engineer who once dabbled in logistics and distribution, one thing that’s defined his work throughout is his propensity to nurture — both people and brands.
Having excelled in school, Bassil thought that a degree in mechanical engineering might unleash a mathematician or scientist that waited within. While he graduated cum laude, what Wits University brought out was a keen interest in SA politics — and making a difference. Walking away from an opportunity in mining for a post in production management at Procter & Gamble, Bassil found himself increasingly gravitating towards service. His support for striking workers landed him in hot water with management, but the loyalty it earned from his team helped them break line-efficiency records, and gave him his “first taste of winning when you work for people”.
Fast-forward a couple of years and Bassil had followed recommendations to move into the logistics and distribution side of the business, before joining Bain & Company as a consultant in 1999. After battling a bout of imposter syndrome, he came to realise that “even if you come from a small town, from a small school — it’s up to you to define yourself.” He says that a year spent in London as part of the job opened his eyes to the chronic underestimation of abilities that South Africans, though relentless in their pursuit of professional goals, seem to face within themselves. “We think that, because we’re from the tip of Africa, people in London and New York know better than us, and I soon realised that wasn’t the case.”
2002 saw Bassil start a new position at then SAB, as executive assistant to the chairman, fellow Lebanese South African, Norman Adami. After a year under Adami’s tutelage, he was encouraged to move into marketing, an area of business likened to farming by his boss. The role, he was told, required nurturing — and Bassil, as his success with Castle Lager would show, was a nurturer.
Headhunted by Pernod Ricard SA, Bassil’s achievements at his next workplace included building up the marketing team from 9 to 42 staff members, introducing consumer insights at the core of the business, relaunching several brands, among them Absolut, and winning Marketer of the Year at the 2016 IAB Bookmark Awards, testament to his ability to bring about growth through hard, people-oriented work.
Absolut One Source
“It was quite tough to get the global team’s support for Absolut,” Bassil says. “We were seen as mavericks in the beginning, but we hit on this idea of one source in terms of the product, and one source in terms of Africa being the source of all humanity, and launched the One Source Absolut campaign, which won Gold at the Cannes Lions, and did very well for us a business, taking the brand from 16 000 to 110 000 cases.” That achievement, he said, caught people’s attention, and an invitation to head up Absolut’s marketing team followed.
Moving to Sweden with his family has brought home the realisation that, though bridging cultures may be challenging, one’s experience as an outsider may allow connection on a deeper level, he says. According to Bassil, authentic connection is one of the things that he enjoys most about marketing — making his new role an excellent fit. “What’s really attractive about Absolut, as a brand, is its inclusiveness, its philosophy of creating a more open world.”
Bassil’s position sees him leading a core team of 50 staff members spread across the globe, and one of his goals, he says, is to “nurture this tribe to be seen as the marketing team that everyone wants to work with”. He plans to make sure their work continues to be seen as something meaningful that adds value to consumers, and is respected by the creative community. At the same time, he will be looking to boost the commercial success of the brand, particularly in its stronghold in the US, where he says it is are experiencing headwinds from competitors and other product categories.
“Message of positivity”
“I’d like to leave a legacy that says, as a brand, we’ve made the world slightly better, either through our sustainable operations, or through the message of positivity that we’re spreading. In a world that’s increasingly divided and polarised, I think there’s a need for more positive messages — not cheesy messages, but real, authentic ones, around what happens when diverse people come together. When you open your table and make everyone feel welcome, really great things can happen.”
*Corrected at 0.09am on 16 April 2019. We regret the error.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. She is a a contributing writer to MarkLives.com
MarkLives profiles South African marketers in its regular #Marketers column.
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