A Q&A with Carabao’s Chief Marketing Officer John Luck

Originating from humble beginnings in the coastal suburbs of Bangkok, Carabao has conquered Thailand and is now making fast advances in the UK

Expanding into new markets is no mean feat for any company.

Extensive analysis is required, with a need to understand different demands, cultures, trends and demographics, whilst a number of barriers may have to be considered and overcome. And even after all of this, success is by no means guaranteed.

With more foreign expansion and investment occurring now than ever before, marketing has become a crucial function to businesses looking to broaden their horizons – a function that Thai energy drink Company Carabao has mastered.

Having launched just 16 years ago, the Company now holds 26 percent of the energy drink market in Thailand and has established itself in several European markets, including the UK.

Speaking to Asia Outlook, John Luck, Carabao’s Chief Marketing Officer, reveals how the business has managed to be so successful in conquering new markets in the face of established competition, and what the Company has been recently pursuing to maintain its upward trajectory.

Asia Outlook (AsO): John, you previously worked in executive marketing positions for the likes of Coca-Cola, Duchy Originals and Time Out London. How has your time at Carabao differed and what drew you to working as CMO of the Company?

John Luck (JL): Put quite simply, everything is different from my previous roles! As a startup and a challenger brand, Carabao has to approach things differently, whether that’s our marketing initiatives, our products, the broad audiences we’re trying to engage, or the way in which we work in sports through our football sponsorships.

This means my role is hugely diverse and spans across all areas of the business, not just marketing. From the speed at which we work, to the intuitive rather than researched decisions we take, to the necessity to take risks and be wholly accountable for those choices – this is far and away the most challenging job I’ve ever had, but that’s what makes it great!

This is part of what drew me to the role, alongside the allure of working for Thai owners based in Bangkok. That, and the incredible opportunities our investment in football and sport affords us, especially as a big football fan, makes this a pretty irresistible CMO role.

AsO: How crucial has marketing been to the success of Carabao?

JL: Marketing has been a key component in Carabao’s success to date since we launched in the UK almost two years ago. Our high-profile sponsorships with Reading, Chelsea and our sponsorship of the EFL Cup, now known as the Carabao Cup, have grown brand awareness to unprecedented levels.

On top of these football partnerships we’ve invested heavily to drive trial and repeat buying of our drinks. Earlier this year we launched a multi-million-pound integrated marketing campaign entitled ‘The Bonkers Drink For Bonkers Lives’ which successfully told our unique brand story and explained that, unlike other energy drinks on the market, Carabao is designed to give men and women of all ages a boost to help them get through their busy lives.

Our nationwide campaign targeting exhausted commuters, students and working men and women ensured our great-tasting products were sampled at the right time by the people who need them most.

AsO: Have the challenges that the Company has faced in Europe been different to those in Asia?

JL: Naturally, different markets throw up different challenges. Our launch in Thailand was an overnight success because Carabao was invented by a well-known Thai rockstar, Aed Carabao, whose massive local fanbase created an instant market for his drink of the same name. As a consequence, our marketing approach in the UK has had to be markedly different.

In the UK, the energy drinks sector is dominated by long-established companies that have invested in their brands for many years. For Carabao to secure listings with key retailers and drive consumption amongst UK consumers, we’ve had to uniquely position the brand to offer genuine points of difference versus the competition.

In Thailand, Carabao exists as a single, high-sugar SKU, packaged in a small glass bottle and retailing for 10 Baht (approximately £0.25). In the UK we have five fruit-flavoured SKUs including Green Apple and Mandarin Orange that are all either low sugar (less than five grams of sugar per 100ml) or sugar free. This product portfolio is unique in the UK energy drinks market and is integral to our ‘for everyone’ strategy and commitment to growing the category.

AsO: Has Carabao’s UK launch so far been a success?

JL: We are very pleased with the progress we have made in the UK to date. From a distribution perspective, we have listings in many key retailers and our rate of sale is improving as we grow. Brand awareness has increased massively in the two years since our launch and our exceptional flavours are driving strong repeat purchase rates.

Our football partnerships are delivering huge numbers in terms of awareness, claimed consideration and trial. Importantly, we have external data that shows that over 50 percent of Carabao’s volume is derived from drinkers outside the category, which not only supports our unique positioning, but also validates the promises we have made to our customers.

AsO: The Company has partnered with the English Football League (EFL), Chelsea FC and Reading FC. How have these collaborations helped this launch?

JL: Our football partnerships have grown Carabao’s brand awareness exponentially since our launch. Football is incredibly popular in the UK and so fits well with our desire to appeal to men and women of all ages. We activate our football partnerships with the same challenger thinking that drives all of our marketing and as such, unlike other football sponsors, we promote our sponsorship of Chelsea and Reading Women’s teams equally alongside the Men’s teams. 

Earlier this year we also launched the acclaimed ‘We Are Female Fans’ initiative to coincide with the 2018 World Cup, a campaign to change the online representation of female football fans. In addition, we have also sought to make conventional football draws more interesting and so throughout the Carabao Cup competition we have deployed a series of live draws held overseas, via Twitter and the first all-female draw. Collectively this approach has allowed Carabao to engage millions of potential consumers up and down the country and establish a reputation for doing things differently.

AsO: How else has the Carabao invested in marketing practices in recent times to maintain the brand’s continual growth?

JL: We are continually exploring new ways of shaking up the energy drink market to attract new drinkers. In July we offered consumers the opportunity to win a share of Mr Carabao’s £1 Million Giveaway with cash prizes to be won every 60 seconds. Unlike most FMCG promotions, we didn’t use complicated algorithms to reduce the odds, instead we wanted Carabao drinkers to win. To date we have given away over £850,000 and over 25 percent of the unique ring-pull codes have been redeemed. Consequently, our can sales have been phenomenal.

Internationally, we are always on the lookout for profitable new markets for the Carabao brand to add to the existing markets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and we activate a number of global marketing initiatives to grow the brand in these territories. Football has no boundaries, so our sponsorships with Chelsea and the EFL in particular have been brought to life overseas to engage our Southeast Asian drinkers. Cash giveaways, like the UK’s Win A Million promotion work well in these markets too and last month Carabao introduced the UK’s Green Apple product to a more affluent, younger Thai consumer. Sampling Carabao repeatedly to the same people is another common feature in Carabao’s marketing plans across the world.

AsO: Looking ahead to the next few years, do you have any personal goals or strategic targets for the Company?

JL: Growing our distribution base and reinforcing our competitive advantages is key to our continued growth. We have already secured significant listings with major supermarkets, high street retailers, wholesalers, independents and symbol groups, and we are committed to landing further top tier customers and deepening our distribution within existing customers. Marketing-wise, we will continue to sweat our football sponsorships to grow awareness, trial our products and invest further in advertising campaigns to explain why Carabao is the go-to drink for anyone in need of a great tasting and low sugar energy boost.

On a personal level, I’m excited about bringing new people into the energy drink market and ruffling a few of our competitors’ feathers along the way. As a Liverpool fan, I also hope to present my team with the Carabao Cup trophy, but that will already have to wait until next season’s competition!