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During Prohibition, tourists arriving at the Havana airport were often greeted by Rafael Valiente, a popular bartender in Cuba and the first brand ambassador for Bacardi rum. Valiente, known as Pappy, would frequently take them to Bacardi’s private bar in its Havana office building and treat them to a rum cocktail.

Bacardi’s strategy was simple: It believed that people who sampled its rum would turn into regular customers.

Decades later, the spirits company is trying something similar — though this time without Pappy Valiente. Last month, 3,000 employees of Bacardi Limited made their way to bars throughout the world. The goal: Interact with bartenders and other patrons in an effort to generate goodwill and sales. Besides Bacardi rum, the company’s brands include Grey Goose vodka, Dewar’s Scotch and Bombay Sapphire gin.

The one-day initiative, called “Back to the Bar,” was partly the result of brainstorming sessions involving the consulting firm Instinctif Partners and thousands of company employees that began last summer and continued through early January, said K.C. Kavanagh, Bacardi’s global communications officer. Videos showing employees how to talk with bar staff and how to take pictures of cocktails for social media were posted on the company’s intranet and shared by email.

It is also another example of how companies are going beyond traditional advertising and trying to attract customers through direct contact.

“One thing that came up with everyone was that you have to get closer to the business, to its roots — you can’t be stuck in your office,” Kavanagh said. “There’s so much to learn in the market. You can’t just sit behind a desk, or we’d be an accounting firm.”

Bacardi executives said their initiative was inspired, in part, by the #OptOutside campaign of REI, the outdoor retailer. Since 2015, REI has closed its U.S. stores on Black Friday, paying its 12,000 employees to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends; it has also suspended online sales on that day.

Since last year, MillerCoors has sponsored events in three key markets — “Cheers to Milwaukee” in that city and “We All Sell Beer” in Denver and the Dallas-Fort Worth region — that sent hundreds of employees, with varying responsibilities and seniority, and distributors to hundreds of bars. The employees, including the chief executive, Gavin Hattersley, bought beer for customers and socialized with them and the bars’ staff and owners. All events also featured free concerts.

American Family Insurance, which sells its products in 19 states, held events called “One Saturday to Dream Fearlessly” last year in five key markets: Minneapolis-St. Paul; Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon. The name reflected the company’s mission to “inspire, protect and restore dreams.”

Each event featured celebrities (singer John Legend in the Twin Cities, NFL star J.J. Watt in Madison) who participated in community service projects with local American Family employees and agents and local volunteers. Among these was a “dream academy” in Atlanta, with activities designed to show young people that “when it comes to dreams, the sky is the limit.” The events were created with the assistance of agencies like BBDO and Mindshare.

Community initiatives appear to be producing positive results for the companies that sponsor them, quantifiable and not.

Alex Thompson, vice president of brand stewardship and impact for REI, said 8 million people participated in #OptOutside last year by spending Black Friday outdoors, up from 1.4 million in 2015, based on social media engagements. Over 600 organizations, including companies like Subaru, Google and Unilever, as well as groups like the National Park Service and Sierra Club, have become involved in the campaign.

James Kanter, MillerCoors’ general manager for Wisconsin, said his company’s initiatives helped it “sell beer and build community relations.” Its recent Texas event took place in Fort Worth on Friday, Texas Independence Day, and Saturday, when a free concert, with free food and beer, was held at its brewery there.

Such events, said Telisa Yancy, chief marketing officer of American Family Insurance, are a different way to engage customers that is “relevant and aligned with the current zeitgeist.” Research confirms “our belief that consumers want to support brands and companies that go beyond transactional sales to create social impact,” she added.

As Kavanagh of Bacardi said, “Who needs focus groups when you can go to the local bar?”

Tulin Erdem, chairwoman of the marketing department at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said the “Back to the Bar” initiative created a “nice experience for customers to see Bacardi employees, for community building, and for employees to see how customers relate to the brand.”

She also said it created “some buzz,” significant “because paid advertising only works to some extent today.”

“We live in the age of social media — your customer has become your spokesperson,” Erdem said. “That’s the best way to advertise today.”


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