John McDonnell: Booze, Success and Building a Recession-Proof Brand

John McDonnell

Today I am thrilled to share a Success Story interview with John McDonnell. John has marketed several global brands and offers some great insights into success and how to build a recession-proof brand.

John McDonnell


About John McDonnell

John McDonnell has launched and marketed a number of successful global spirits brands, bringing hard work and business acumen to over 140 countries around the world. In a career that began at Seagram, then Patrón Spirits and now at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, he is credited with successful, game-changing innovations … like globally establishing the Super Premium tequila category around the world, and helping establish Tito’s as the world’s fastest-growing vodka. He’s also become known as a global thought leader in his field, offering new and transformational ideas to global industries and decision-makers.

My questions are in bold, John's follow in plain text.

How did you get started in your career?

I needed to eat. During college and immediately after graduation I worked in Boston politics, but the money I earned couldn’t cover my living expenses. So I put out feelers and landed a job in Marketing Research for Joseph E. Seagram and Sons in New York.

What does a typical day look like?

A typical day starts with me getting up between 5-6 am, answering emails and calling my teams in Asia and the Middle East. Then I go for a 3-5 mile run to organize my thoughts for the balance of the day. Most of the time I am traveling, so I’m visiting distributors and retailers in any given country.

What is one thing you have learned from being successful?

You are only as good as your last profit plan. The harder I work, the more success I enjoy. You must also surround yourself with a talented team that complements your own strengths and weaknesses.

Is there a mistake you have made starting out that you wish you could change?

Not getting my MBA.

What advice would you give someone starting out?

In today’s culture, my advice to someone starting out is to use verbal communication versus relying on texts and emails. Most problems can be solved quickly by verbal communication. I have a rule: once you email someone back and forth three times, the next step is a phone call.

Professionally what are you most proud of?

I have been widely credited with building the Super Premium Tequila category with Patron. My team exploded it into the U.S. and made it a global iconic brand.

Looking back on your career, is there something you learned that you found surprising?

Most definitely. The discriminatory tax structures from country to country. The price of a bottle of liquor in Australia is close to 60% tax!

What advice would you have for people that struggling to launch a career?

You must be willing to take a job that might not satisfy you fully, or where the pay is not what you feel you are worth. That readiness to start somewhere can be the crucial pathway you need to break in big-time. Once you are in and prove yourself, the sky's the limit.

Do you have any tips for people trying to make it in business?

Educate yourself on the different categories and subsets within it so that you can talk the talk. Be open to relocating.

John McDonnell on Branding

What is a mistake you see companies make with their branding?

Many companies try to extend the base brand by offering too many alternate choices in an effort to gain market share – like vodkas or whiskeys reaching for far-out flavors. Some choices are already such a reach I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Chicken Soup” or “Ham and Eggs” flavors someday.

Often, however, the glut of additional flavors and SKU’s can backfire – creating customer confusion and watering down whatever the base brand is supposed to represent.

How can brands prepare themselves for corrections, downturns, and recessions?

Most companies prepare for economic challenges by cutting marketing and staff. In a downturn, however, I increase my Marketing.

My competitor brands are mostly owned by multinational companies who are beholden to shareholders and earnings per share. So with short-term thinking, they often slash their marketing spends. Good for me! Once they do, my share of voice increases significantly. Then, when the economy turns around again, I benefit greatly from having continued to drive home my message with consumers.

How should brands position themselves to take advantage of a downturn or recession?

All I can say is, I believe in the strategy I outlined above. I’d stay “stay in the game” and maintain your voice in the marketplace. I believe that pays off in the long term.

If you could recommend one book to help people be more successful what would it be, and why.

Who Moved My Cheese? The one constant in business is, change. This book teaches you how to cope with change positively

Any upcoming projects you are working on?

Yes, I have been publishing articles for Forbes. Sharing what I’ve learned along the way in my 35+ years in this industry. In addition, I am always looking for opportunities for public speaking engagements. I will be addressing two different eTail conferences this year.

What does your social media strategy look like, any tips?

Plain and simple our strategy is to be authentic and true to the brand.

Any mistakes you see people routinely make with social media?

I believe people share too much information about themselves on social media.

Once something is posted, it’s potentially there forever.

Where can people connect with you online?

Do you have any apps, books or tips that you use to be more productive?

I love the app Concur for expense reports. I take a picture of my receipt, and it’s automatically uploaded to my report. Keeps me organized.

How do you manage time?

I spend a huge chunk of my time on airplanes. This gives me the chance to review and separate “nice to have” reports from the “must-have” reports.

What is the best advice you have received?

You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk.

Do you have any advice for people that may feel discouraged about reaching their goals?

Keep your eyes on the prize. If it’s worth fighting for, keep going forward. Seek a mentor and discuss your challenges with an objective party you trust and respect. Sometimes we get too close to a project and overthink what we are doing.

How important is fitness to success?

Absolutely critical. Fitness is what allows me to fly across the globe and still be able to function. In the hospitality industry we are always eating out, and without exercise, I would be overweight and probably have high blood pressure.

Do you enjoy working out? If not, how do you get motivated

I love working out. This past year I may have missed only 3 or 4 days of exercise. In addition to running, I do some lightweight training.

Do you have anything you would like to promote or tell us about?

I love public speaking and sharing my thoughts about how to be successful. Building brands is my passion. I’m often told that personally engaging an audience the way I do, makes my presentations fun and engaging. I’ve got an overview of my work as a guest speaker to share with anyone who might be interested in.

What is the one thing you wish everyone knew?

Being direct and honest with people is the best approach to life and success. I don’t tell people what they want or hope to hear. I always tell it the way it is. Some people find my approach a bit hard to handle. But I believe strongly that people who can’t handle the truth will ultimately find that their blindness catches up with them.

Anything I should ask that I have not?

Yes. I serve on a couple of boards. Currently, I’m Chairman of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. I also serve on the board of Fisher College in Boston. I believe in public service and in giving back.

Board work is extremely important. I’ve witnessed that many serving on other boards along with me were simply showing up at our meetings, just to check a box on their resumes. But a worthy board member needs to speak up honestly. I recently read a WSJ story which commented on the GE board. It went on to observe that the board never questioned any of Jeffrey Immelt’s proposals. Boards should never function in this “blank check” manner. You’re there to be responsible: to see and to tell the truth.

Thank You

Thank you, John, for your great insights. 


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