Brown-Forman’s iconic brands cushion travel retail sales decline during year of lockdown

Aude Bourdier started her new position as Vice President, Managing Director Global Travel Retail for Brown-Forman in August, right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic which has hit the duty free industry so hard. Bourdier tells TMI that even with these COVID-19 setbacks, Brown-Forman Global Travel Retail is in a strong position to rebound and grow once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror and people are traveling again.

Aude Bourdier


Aude Bourdier says that opportunities exist even during a crisis.

“There were some positive developments during the lockdown. I learned early in my career that talented people accept the inevitability of adversities and do their best to take advantage of the opportunities they present. I am proud to say that the Brown- Forman team did just that over the past 12 months or so,” says Bourdier, who joined Brown-Forman in 2018, and had been serving as marketing director Brown-Forman Travel Retail as well as overseeing domes- tic marketing activities in the developed markets of Asia-Pacific before assuming her new position.

The slowdown in travel retail allowed the company time to develop solutions and prepare staff for better opportunities ahead, said Bourdier.

“For one thing, we pulled together to formulate plans and strategies in preparation for the never-questioned return of international travel. Secondly, we used the time to embark on serious and concentrated training programs that emphasized critical skill development and personal advancement. And finally, we paused to appreciate that 2020 marked the 150th anniversary of our company’s founding and used the occasion to reflect on Brown-Forman’s proud history and the many obstacles and challenges that have been overcome. We used the grit and resoluteness of our earlier counterparts to buoy our spirits during COVID and reinforce our determination to emerge stronger as a team and more deter- mined for success than ever.”

Bourdier, who replaced Marshall Farrer when he was named president of Brown-Forman Europe, reflects on the timing of her transition to leading Brown- Forman’s global travel retail business.

“I indeed had the good fortune of not only assuming the managing director’s position in the midst of a global pandemic but at the same time attempting to fill the formidable shoes of my predecessor, Marshal Farrer, who is both a member of the company’s board of directors and a highly- respected Brown family member. But all- in-all I think the transition was smooth and orderly aided by Marshall’s guidance and the fact that I was a known and accepted entity having served as the travel retail team’s marketing director for the previous two years,” she tells TMI.

Brown-Forman reported that its travel retail business was down 54% for the nine months ending January 31, 2021. However, business in the United States and Developed International markets grew 7% during the same time period.

Bourdier says that because of the reputation and popularity of the brands in its portfolio, Brown-Forman was able to maintain a strong business profile during 2020.

“Both Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve did quite well in domestic markets thanks in part to consumers who were experiencing various levels of lockdown being inclined to favor brands that were known and proven at the expense of those that are newer or less familiar. We feel this trend will continue with the return of international travel.

“For one thing, during COVID, fans of products like Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Herradura tequila who had been making their purchases in travel retail simply bought them domestically. We have every belief that they will switch back to making duty free purchases when they return to their former traveling lifestyle.”

Premiumization will continue to be an important part of Brown-Forman’s travel retail strategy as international travel returns, says Bourdier.

“International travelers are, for the most part, knowledgeable, sophisticated and unrelenting in their demand for premium authentic brands. That was their standard prior to COVID and I see no reason for it to change as we move back toward normalcy. Our strategy moving forward is to continue our focus on premium spirits and global travel retail exclusives.

“We got off to a very good start in these endeavors three years ago with the launch of Jack Daniel’s Bottled-in-Bond. It has enjoyed tremendous acceptance and success over a relatively short period of time and has proven to be a favorite of discerning travelers looking for some something a bit different from the Jack Daniel’s family of whiskies. The Bottled-in-Bond whiskey itself – a unique liquid bottled at a higher proof – serves as a perfect complement to Gentleman Jack and our Single Barrel selections which remain quite popular themselves. Given our success with such brands in travel retail you can expect to see us continue to focus on bringing new premium spirits into the channel.

“Regarding Old Forester, as our founding brand it holds a special place in the heart of the Brown-Forman family. It is an exquisite bourbon with steep authenticity and ancestry and enjoys quite a following in the United States. It will be a key task of the Brown-Forman global travel retail team is to establish it in new markets and make it known to and adopted by whiskey connoisseurs around the world.”

2020 was supposed to be a year of celebration for Brown-Forman, with the company ringing in its 150th anniversary. COVID-19 changed that tune, says Bourdier.

“It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the actual celebration of our 150th anniversary in 2020 was a little more muted than called for in our original plans. However, we did make every ef- fort to make the most of this remarkable achievement and we used the occasion to move forward with the confidence that as a company we had overcome even more grievous challenges in the past and that we would survive this as well. As far as extending the celebration into 2021, I think that as normalcy creeps back into our lives everyone within Brown-Forman and out will be in a celebratory mood as we engage in – and relish – what was formally referred to somewhat derisively as ‘business as usual.’”

Bourdier is optimistic that this “business as usual” will be coming soon for travel retail.

“For the first time in a long time there is a sense of optimism in the air. While their rollout has sometimes been frustratingly slow or cumbersome, the vaccines seem to be proving effective and are being strongly embraced by the general public. I know that Brown-Forman travel retail is quite anxious to get fully re-engaged in our business activities and I can only assume this enthusiasm is as strong in other travel retail companies and operations as well. As to what is next, I would venture to say that long-haul international travel will be slower to engage but we are already seeing an uptick in intra-continental flights in Asia, Europe and North and South America.

“As far as portfolio adjustments during COVID, we saw no need to do so. The attributes that contributed to the popularity of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve pre-COVID – great taste, authenticity and premium value – will still be in force with the resumption of normal international travel and commerce.”