Brand-building: Savanna Cider – It's dry but people are drinking lots of it

It’s a lovely problem to have: being so popular that production can’t keep up with demand. But for South Africa’s most popular cider, Savanna, brand strength, identifying consumer trends and committed work have helped it achieve 2.2% growth in market share plus volumes, despite prohibition costing the liquor industry a fifth of trading days and taking a massive hit as a result of July’s lootings.

Over the past year, Savanna has doubled in size, explains the woman driving its impressive growth, Natasha Maharaj, marketing and communications director at Distell, which owns the premium cider brand. Much of that growth has been spurred by demand for Savanna Non-Alcoholic, which was released in 2019, months before the pandemic hit South Africa, and a healthy dose of humour.

Maharaj, a strategist who has led brand-building across home care, food and beverage categories in Singapore and Switzerland for Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, says she is passionate about developing and delivering “humanised” growth – not just to address the needs of shareholders and drive market expansion, but also to address the needs of consumers and employees.

Maharaj is responsible for 43 brands at Distell, including Savanna, Gordon’s Gin, the biggest gin in South Africa; 4th Street, SA’s biggest-selling wine; and Amarula, the biggest liqueur in the country.

“This is what has been so amazing at Distell because the industry has been so demonised in the past and there’s a huge tension point in terms of alcohol as a category. So what I’m most proud [of] in the past three years is beyond the 2% share growth that we’ve achieved. It’s massive growth in the alcohol category.”

This, despite recurrent bans on liquor and restrictions on trading.

By “humanising” the growth of these brands, Distell pushed its values beyond shareholding, introducing harm reduction programmes around responsible consumption that target the moments when people tend to binge drink, promoting responsible drinking and driving programmes, vaccination and women empowerment.

“There’s been a lot of work in terms of not just the normal standardised lifestyle advertising, but also true harm reduction. Women are a big part of our campaign. So, for example, Bernini’s [the sparkling grape aperitif] Squadcast creates opportunities for women to speak and provides a platform for honest conversations.”

Squadcast is a series of video content hosted by media personality Penny Lebyane, which shines a light on her guests’ unique struggles and successes. “We discuss CVs, interview techniques, how to find a job, the workplace and confidence.”

For Savanna, the Virtual Comedy Bar kept laughter alive by supporting comedians and uplifting the nation.

“Savanna was built on a platform of crisp, witty humour. In the past year, Savanna has grown to be the most loved brand in the country. It’s also in the top three brands in South Africa in terms of volume and value.”

Brand-building: Savanna Cider – It’s dry but people are drinking lots of it
© Provided by Daily Maverick Natasha Maharaj, marketing and communications director at Distell. (Photo: Johann Botha)

A big part of the reason it has grown is because it used humour as leverage while supporting entertainers who were unable to perform owing to restrictions. It was a sure-fire strategy, Maharaj explains. The Virtual Comedy Bar kicked off in May 2020. Driven from the positive intent of uplifting the nation, rather than merely making money off the shows, which it couldn’t, in any case, Savanna brought laughter into homes – free – while keeping entertainers employed.

Where did all those Savanna consumers come from?

Soaring in-home consumption: Maharaj says grocers’ trading hours were curtailed; nightclubs were closed; shebeens were open but mingling was not allowed; restaurants were shut for a large portion of 2020; and the curfew, which put a damper on socialisation

Prior to Covid-19, alcohol consumption was largely segregated, with men and women drinking apart from one another in restaurants, bars, taverns and even at home. With the arrival of Covid-19, people drank together, at home. “So brands could transcend the unisex environment. If you look at Savanna’s brand penetration, it’s unisex. That’s massive because the 50-50 split [means] anyone can drink it. And when the alcohol bans came into force, Savanna Non-alcoholic was one of the few adult beverages available.”

The non-alcoholic category grew appreciably: consumers who weren’t Savanna drinkers gravitated towards the non-alcoholic version, which stuck even once the bans were lifted.

“We’re very proud of the taste of Savanna Non-alc. It’s very similar to Savanna, just with no alcohol.”

Locally relevant, on-trend branding, plus the ability to leverage crisp, witty humour, have afforded Savanna the highest brand equity in the market. “We invested a lot in cultural insights to understand what is happening, what is bubbling under the surface, and linked the humour space to the brand.”

The result? Campaigns such as the tongue-in-cheek dig at influencer culture, “Siyavanna” with Sello Maake ka-Ncube; the “Savatical” competition for a paid sabbatical; and the latest campaign, “Joller”, an online dating platform campaign with a spark of humour.

Yet again, demonstrating that laughter is the best medicine. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

Brand-building: Savanna Cider – It’s dry but people are drinking lots of it
© Provided by Daily Maverick

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