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Deep Dive 16 Aug 2021 - 7 min read

'Lion's on the hunt': Top marketer Anubha Sahasrabuddhe says rival CUB nailed it with Great Northern, but shouldn't get too comfortable; plots diversity shake-up, big ads and new markets in beer and beyond

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Anuhba Sahasrabuddhe, head of brand and consumer, Lion

Anuhba Sahasrabuddhe: "We want consumers to sit up take notice and get out of the inertia that we put them in."

After 20 years offshore leading marketing at Mars, Wrigley and Coke, Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director at Lion, is back in Australia. While some brands and sectors have metamorphosised into marketing leaders during that time, others have gone backwards, Lion, in some cases, included. She says the 70s wants its stereotypes back and aims to unchain beer to do good – and make good ads. She's channeling New Zealand to recapture Australia's mojo and land with the untapped multicultural masses... and may just take Lion beyond beer.

What you need to know:

  • After almost two decades offshore, Lion’s top marketer Anubha Sahasrabuddhe says some categories – telco, finance, insurance – have transformed and are filling the void left by government.
  • But others are guilty of reinforcing tropes and stereotypes that belong in the 70s, Lion included: “it’s in my own backyard”.
  • She’s aiming to make beer ads good, funny and pointy again – ad standards and keyboard warriors be damned – and thinks New Zealand presents a template to follow.
  • More importantly, Sahasrabuddhe wants to make beer accessible to all Australians, and thinks marketers have missed a massive, multibillion-dollar trick.
  • Meanwhile, she gives rival CUB a wrap for booting XXXX into touch with Great Northern, but is plotting countermeasures.
  • Craft beer, big beers and drinks beyond beer are all on the cards.

Born and raised just outside of Sydney, Anubha Sahasrabuddhe is at pains to emphasise she's only been back in the country six months after 17 years offshore and a career spanning top marketing roles at Mars, Wrigley and Coke across the US, Asia and New Zealand. Keen to avoid being seen as striking a lofty tone, she nevertheless observes anachronisms a-plenty, or “the good, the bad and the ugly” when it comes to local media and marketing.

Some sectors have taken great leaps forward during her absence, with Australian businesses and their marketing functions, “answering the call” to fill the void left by “the failure of government” in making decisions “whether it’s the bushfires or the pandemic” and driving change.

Financial services and telco sectors, she says, are leading the charge, with their marketers simultaneously serving as “growth leaders” while attempting to solve “gigantic problems that are not just Australian problems”.

Sahasrabuddhe sees an open road ahead – and open doors – for brands to keep filling the political vacuum. “And I'm super excited by that,” she tells Mi3, “because the bigger and hairier the problems, the more credibility that marketers can bring.”

But the marketing industry could also fill some glaring voids of its own.

The lack of inclusivity is why we're failing to connect with the next generation of drinkers. Where things are not growing it is a reflection of the fact consumers are saying ‘you don’t understand me, my needs, my values – and you’re certainly not reflecting them, so why would I engage with you?

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

The good, the bad and the ugly

The rise of the insurance and banking in marketing paragons is the most striking change, says Sahasrabuddhe. From low involvement and even lower consumer trust 20 years ago, “I see them making these enormous shifts in terms of their point of view and their willingness to lean in.”

On the flip side, “I see some cringeworthy stuff that talks to an Australia that I don't believe reflects Australia today.”

She thinks betting firms are some of the guiltiest parties – and fingers Ladbrokes as a notable culprit.

“When I say cringeworthy [I mean the] lowest common denominator, the worst stereotypes of what it meant to be Australian, perhaps in the late 70s and 80s – and the fact that you see those tropes play out is just makes me sad. We are better than that.”

But Sahasrabuddhe admits the beer category – at least some of the big end – is also in a state and says “it’s in my own back yard” with Lion also guilty of “reinforcement of stereotypes … and having perpetuated that.”

If we deeply understand what modern Australian values look like, then we can execute that in a lot more credible way without the cringey tokenism of ‘let me stick an Asian or some other minority group in there’.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Along with others, she suggests the beer category has been “tone deaf”, failing to keep pace with the “cultural shift that has occurred in Australia”, particularly among younger Australians. “Actually it couldn't be further from what a 30-year-old Australian in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, looks like. It has just been out of step.”

Advertising is “at its best when it is reflecting deep human truths or values”, says Sahasrabuddhe. While that can and probably should include “lifeblood category definers of ‘mateship’, hard work, earned reward and escape and sociability … the way it is expressed is incredibly one dimensional,” she says.

“The lack of inclusivity and old tropes is why we're failing to connect with the next generation of drinkers. And this plays out literally in terms of where you see the category trends… Where things are not growing it is a reflection of the fact consumers are saying ‘you don’t understand me, my needs, my values – and you’re certainly not reflecting them, so why would I engage with you?”

Chinese New Year is possibly the biggest annual joyous festival. Yet I've not seen many companies in Australia actually leverage these key moments the same way we do when summer's coming and you need to slam back a cold one or the footy finals.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Missing multiculturalism entirely

Sahasrabuddhe thinks beer – and other categories – are missing a massive trick by failing to fully embrace Australia’s diversity, pointing out that almost 40 per cent of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane populations are non-Australian born,

“We're so multicultural for such a small country, but we don't actually market in like that… We're reflecting the cultural norms that make up Anglo Saxon Australia: ‘it's summer and it's Easter and it's Christmas’. But we've got an enormous Asian population. By volume, China has the world's largest beer market,” says Sahasrabuddhe.

“So Chinese people love beer. Chinese New Year is possibly the biggest joyous festival that happens every year. Yet I've not seen many companies in Australia actually leverage these key moments the same way we do when summer's coming and you need to slam back a cold one or the footy finals or any of those other big moments where you marry cultural relevance with consumption moments in a way that's resonant to your consumer,” she adds.

“I think there are so many of those micro moments through the year that could help us get a lot smarter about how we demonstrate our relevance to people’s daily lives – which is exactly where those consumption moments happen.”

Which is why Sahasrabuddhe has spent the last six months trying to diagnose the problems – in order to stand a chance of delivering growth, both financial and, just maybe, societal.

“If we deeply understand what modern Australian values look like, then we can execute that in a lot more credible way without the cringey tokenism of ‘let me stick an Asian or some other minority group in there’... That's lazy. That's not actually understanding what drives behaviours of this next generation of consumers, it's just defaulting to the lowest common denominator. So let's understand and reflect modern Australia, not old Australia.”

[In the nineties and noughties] Australian beer advertising was so reflective of pop culture, it understood, and sometimes took the piss out of it. You were ‘in on it’ with your consumers, you understood what they’re doing. That’s what is missing right now. But that’s the exciting part of being able to bring it back.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Bigger, better ads, with humour

But Sahasrabuddhe is at pains to point out that being culturally inclusive does not mean being boring and woke. She thinks wit is critical for beer ads.

Sahasrabuddhe cites Carlton’s 2005 ‘Big Ad’ and the Toohey’s Extra Dry ads before that as mainstream beer at its best, a summit she aims to reconquer.

“It was so reflective of pop culture, it understood it and sometimes took the piss out of it. You were ‘in on it’ with your consumers, so you understand what they’re doing,” she says.

“That’s what is missing right now – and that’s the exciting part of being able to bring that back and create the vibrancy that we are seeing in craft beer in mainstream beer – which is still gigantic. It is still the largest piece of the total alcohol beverage market.

“So we have a platform, we have the scale. And I think we have when we get the authenticity and credibility right, we have every opportunity to ensure that we're part of the conversation again, in the best possible way.”

The level of personalisation that's achievable through a craft beer offering is indicative of the contemporary expectations of a consumer that is firmly in charge. We all know that they're absolutely in charge, so to not listen and to not deliver those needs ... You do it at your peril.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Craft: Diversity delivers growth

Craft beer has nailed it – with compound annual growth over the last decade of circa 20 per cent. It’s a category born out of a lack of diversity.

“That’s quite phenomenal – and why is it growing? Because it is absolutely reflecting the fact that people are diverse, they have diverse tastes. They want to experiment, they don't want to be boxed into one particular style or type,” says Sahasrabuddhe. And the craft breweries are delivering it in spades.

“They are delivering not just functionally in terms of liquids and drinking styles, but – if you look at their semiotics and you look at their actual cues and signals that they put out through the experience, whether that's in the brew, the breweries that they have on site, or their packaging codes or their social media – it's so reflective of the fact that the consumer is increasingly diverse and not expecting to be treated like just another mass type consumer,” she says.

“So you see that beautifully. And the level of personalisation that's achievable through a craft offering, I think is indicative of the contemporary expectations of a consumer that is firmly in charge. We all know that they're absolutely in charge, so to not listen and to not deliver those needs ... You do it at your peril.”

Ten years ago … Great Northern was absolutely the contemporary version of XXXX, but it was an incremental shift versus a seismic shift. Suddenly you put blokes and girls in an ad – chicks in a beer ad! That have clothes! And, God forbid, you are suddenly modern and contemporary.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Be more Great Northern

While Sahasrabuddhe thinks the mainstream beer category is suffering from inertia, she is a big admirer of rival CUB’s Great Northern strategy – and the hard decisions CUB has taken with its other big beer brands.

“If I’m CUB, I’m absolutely on a winning formula [with Great Northern]. It is a magnificent tourism ad – and it doesn’t feel like it needs to have a point of view beyond that.”

With XXXX “looking tired, dusty and old”, she says CUB took an open invite.

“It filled a massive void at the time. Ten years ago … Great Northern was absolutely the contemporary version of XXXX, but it was an incremental shift versus a seismic shift,” says Sahasrabuddhe. “Suddenly you put blokes and girls in an ad – chicks in a beer ad! That have clothes! And, God forbid, you are suddenly modern and contemporary.”

But Sahasrabuddhe takes her hat off to CUB for delivering “the fundamentals of what it takes to build a scalable, sustainable growth brand which started in the north and is now moving south – and has been incredibly consistent. That is super important. It has continued to build on the fundamentals of the four Ps [of product, price, promotion and place] – and they have actively made choices not to invest in some of their legacy brands,” she says.

“They have given Great Northern the oxygen to be the powerhouse that it is by making difficult choices on Carlton and VB and CUB’s tail of historic brands to reflect 'this is our contemporary beer, this is what we're betting on’,” adds Sahasrabuddhe.

“There's a lot more boring stuff that goes into that, not just 'wow, they did a slightly better ad than XXXX did'.”

The cancel culture has all but withered and diluted any ability to have the humour, the tongue in cheek and some of the codes that are vitally important to a category that's all about sociability and some light heartedness... I feel like some of the pointy edge of Australian humour is missing – and I don't know where it went.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

So what should ‘next’ look like in beer?

While Sahasrabuddhe's angling to move beer away from tropes, she’s not about to ditch Lion’s heritage altogether. When it comes to XXXX – and other brands – she thinks the past can influence the future in a good way.

“There is something incredibly powerful about having in one hundred and forty three years of history in your brand stable. There is credibility, authenticity and we are deeply mining the gems that I think will absolutely be able to define that. Because there is something about enduring truths about brand icons which you see play out globally, whether that's Apple or Nike or Coca-Cola or any brands that have history and longevity. You can't dismiss that just because the world's moved on,” says Sahasrabuddhe.

“Sometimes looking back can actually help us propel forward – because we're not a made up brand, we didn't have to make this up. Sometimes being able to acknowledge what you are and how relevant that is… it's timeless and so I strongly believe that has to come back, certainly for the XXXX brand.”

Meanwhile, for newer brands, she thinks “bravery” has got to be brave enough to make a comeback, ad standards and keyboard warriors be damned.

“The cancel culture has all but withered and diluted any ability to have the humour, the tongue in cheek and some of the codes that are vitally important to a category that's all about sociability and some light heartedness,” says Sahasrabuddhe.

“I think it's just finding the right ways into that in a way that's appropriate for the culture, but not being afraid to take risks because otherwise you just get wallpaper.”

To do that, she thinks advertisers have to adopt a challenger mindset.

“I think Koala has done that really well, taking on the giants and doing it in a really clever, witty way. Because I feel like some of the pointy edge of Australian humour is missing – and I don't know where it went.”

Necessity is the mother of invention – and I think New Zealanders and what comes out of New Zealand creatively is just born of the fact that they're under the radar, prepared to take risk... it liberates them.

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe, Consumer & Brand Director, Lion

Can Kiwis help re-capture Australianness?

Sahasrabuddhe is a big fan of New Zealand beer ads – and the Kiwis’ approach to advertising full stop. (And as well as running marketing in Australia she leads Lion's Consumer Global Centre of Excellence across Australia, New Zealand, the US and UK.)

“Necessity is the mother of invention – and I think New Zealanders and what comes out of there creatively is just born of the fact that they're under the radar, prepared to take risk. Consequence shouldn't get in the way – and because there is no consequence, that liberates them," she suggests. "It frees them up to be much more experimental and brave in what and how they communicate.” 

The Kiwis, reckons Sahasrabuddhe, have made “much greater shifts culturally” than Australia. In beer, she thinks “Speight’s, the pride of the south”, is perhaps the best example.

“Think about what Speight’s used to look like – the dude in the hat on the horse in the ‘deep south’ with the mountains around him and all of that. Look at their latest communication – it is completely different and it is so reflective and in step with ‘What is modern masculinity, what does that look like for Kiwis?’”

Simultaneously, Speight’s has moved from parochial South Island origins to a national brand.

“So I think that's a great example of a one hundred years-plus brand that's gone on an arc and has evolved and shifted to reflect culture and society of New Zealand,” says Sahasrabuddhe. “And I think that's brilliant.”

What’s next for Lion

All of the above provides some clues to where – after six months diagnosing the challenges and building foundations and the right teams – Sahasrabuddhe takes Lion next.

“We're in deep, deep planning around exactly what our point of view is going to be around our brands and portfolio. We want consumers to sit up take notice and get out of the inertia that we put them in,” she says.

“From an innovation and new product development perspective, we've done some hard work around understanding where needs are shifting. So watch this space. I think you'll see in 2022, we hope to get people talking about us again.”

Is that across contemporary mass brands, or more niche brands?

“Both,” says Sahasrabuddhe. “And beyond beer.”

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