Natasha Maharaj: Building Purposeful Strategies for Success

Natasha Maharaj | Marketing Director | Distell
Natasha Maharaj | Marketing Director | Distell

Breathing new life and purpose into the dynamic African beverage brand company Distell Southern Africa, Marketing Director, Natasha Maharaj is in the process achieving impressive results.

In the four years after joining Distell, Maharaj has been selected as one of the Top 10 Chief Marketing Officers for 2022/23 by The Loeries South Africa committee, was the runner-up in the Standard Bank Top Women Young Achiever category in 2021. In 2022, she was selected as 2nd global CMO in the invitation-only Institute of Real Growth (IRG) leadership program for chief marketing officers and senior growth leaders announced at the Cannes Lions Festival. The Institute for Real Growth is an independent and not-for-profit organization consisting of the top 100 global CMOs.

Maharaj was appointed to head up Distell’s Southern African marketing department in 2019. One of her first tasks was to restructure the department with agile, digitally capable, collaborative, cross-functional teams.

At the same time, she embedded brand purpose across Distell’s brand portfolio. Prior to joining Distell, Maharaj worked for Unilever, Nestle, and PepsiCo Simba. During her six years at Unilever, she worked on both brand development and execution in Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey before moving to Nestle, where she was marketing manager on the food portfolio. From Nestle, she moved to PepsiCo, where she learned to look at marketing through a portfolio lens, and gained a better understanding of occasion marketing, and how to touch consumers in an omnichannel way.

Maharaj is one of those rare breeds of marketers who understands the intimate relationship between psychology and marketing. “I’ve always been interested in psychology,” she reveals, “In essence, marketing is another form of psychology. At its core, marketing is about using science and consumer psychology to find creative ways to influence consumers to adopt a new idea. The reason I love marketing so much is that it’s the perfect mix of creativity, art, science, and commerciality, connecting people.

Natasha is also mum to 2 wonderful little girls, wife to a fun-loving tech fanatic and a newbie yoga fan.

In an exclusive interview with CIOLook, Natasha Maharaj shares the strategy for achieving repeatable and purposeful success.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Distell. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

I was appointed as Marketing Director in 2019 and am responsible for 120+ teams, including Marketing, Revenue Management, Spirits, and Wine Brand Homes across the country. I currently lead the Distell Southern Africa portfolio.

I led the marketing organization virtually with a new baby being born in Dec 2019, just coming off maternity leave, brands that were in decline as we entered the COVID crisis, with the alcohol business being banned for months. The alcohol industry was expected to decline due to this. Despite all these challenges, we as an organization delivered sustained growth in these watershed years, including 2022. During this time I am most proud we stood by doing “the right thing”, helping to sustain partners and many industries like the entertainment industry through our sustained investments despite our banned trading. Simultaneously we drove loyalty and retained motivated teams with limited resignations and high morale levels due to the care and empathy we undertook for employees.

During all of this I was juggling a vulnerable toddler trying to be a big sister yet wanting my undivided love and attention, an adorable newborn going through her changes, the physical and emotional changes post birth, the uncertainty and anxiety of the impact Covid would bring professionally and personally.

All the while remotely leading and motivating teams and setting new strategies to drive growth and purpose, despite the marketing budgets and plans changing fundamentally and frequently due to the crisis. It was challenging but through that period I learnt so much about my resilience, inner locus of quiet self-confidence and knowing, and my resolve to always move forward by doing things with positive intent even if it wasn’t perfect.

I led and executed the “Brands with purpose strategy” in Distell delivering humanized growth which was a new concept for the business. This helped us grow not only the business but also brand love which has resulted in awards internationally and locally. We won our first Gold Cannes Lion for Savanna in 2022, received multiple gold Loerie awards, an Effie and wonderful industry accolades between 2020 – 2022 due to our brands with a purpose strategy.

My focus has been driving humanized growth – especially in the alcohol industry, with the need to do more for all consumers and customers. The industry was demonized during COVID as the government banned alcohol to avoid socializing and attributed many of the social ills to the industry. This further highlighted the need to lead ecosystem solutions that help society short and long term.

We as an organization have assisted with care packages to women shelters and assisted with patrollers in communities providing safety to women at evenings, to name a few initiatives. We have also further developed our non-alcoholic and low-alcohol range to promote conscious consumption and moderation.

Tell us something more about your company and its mission and vision.

The Distell Group is South Africa and Africa’s leading producer and marketer of wines, spirits, ciders, and other ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, sold across the world. With a diverse portfolio of brands with rich provenance and authenticity, our products are priced across the pricing continuum to cater to a broad spectrum of consumers.

Mission: We craft distinctive alcoholic beverage brands, enhance memorable moments and inspire responsible enjoyment. The value we create enriches the lives of our people, shareholders, and the communities within which we live and work.

Enlighten us on how you have impacted the marketing niche through your expertise in the market.

People are at the heart of everything. It was critical to make sure I had talented people who believed in the vision of creating Africa’s most loved brands with purpose. I started by restructuring the marketing organization with a focus on agile, digitally capable teams – high-performance teams now looking after end-to-end brand management and new product development (NPD).

I focused on hiring diverse teams achieving a transformed team by the end of the first year. NPD moved in the last three years from 1.5% revenue turnover to 5% of revenue for Distell Southern Africa, driven by enhanced capabilities and laser focus on consumer insights converting to creativity.

I spent time and energy on building consumer insights capability and understanding. South Africa is a diverse country with varied consumer habits and needs. I reconfigured the portfolio development and shaping approach, including a new segmentation methodology which allowed us to deliver double-digit growth in COVID years with big bets on clearly aligned brands.

This has also led to a turnaround on major brands in the business by going back to the basics. Brands like the Hunter’s, 4th Street and Bernini required laser repositioning, cut through communication plans, an innovation pathway, internal and external PR campaigns to revitalize the interest and conviction, and integrated consumer plans with sales.

In the last three years, we have delivered growth for the first time in the business post many years of decline going back to consumer needs and relevance with a changing, more youthful cohort.

I led the transformation of our agency model into a bespoke integrated agency model for our portfolio – a one stop shop featuring strong capabilities delivered by an agency network. This partnership hinges on the best creative talent that we can attract and chemistry between our brand and agency teams – the most important recipe. This consumer-centric, digitally forward model has delivered better integrated creative, streamlined, high-quality campaigns. This partnership has yielded a Gold Cannes Lion win, and multiple Loerie wins, Veritas, OneShow, Effie and numerous other consumer and industry awards in the last 24 months.

I am most proud of the growth on Savanna Premium Cider, having grown to be the most loved alcohol brand in the country in 2022. The key recipe – really understanding our trend setter consumer needs and occasions, delivering on the crisp dry taste and quality every time, building consumer love and edge through creative and cut-through campaigns, playing the pricing strategy artfully and making sure every point of execution from a bar to a retail store is premium and impactful.

We deliver delightful experiences at every point of the consumer pathway living up to our brand slogan – Siyavanna “We get you South Africa” Developing creating shared value programs linked to our brands with purpose strategy and seeing the shoots driven by this contribution to communities has been meaningful.

As an organization we have led targeted programs around helping reduce gender-based violence using the NION (Never in our name) program which assisted with care packages to women in shelters.

Our wine alcoholic RTD Bernini brand has also partnered with an NGO to provide underprivileged women with the skills to find employment. Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.

The work culture we have created is one focused on the end DELIGHTING the consumer. The team is humble, hungry for success, happy yet honest. We care and spend time and focus on meeting the needs of customers by truly trying to understand them. We do this by spending time in the trade, with consumers at their homes and at bars and taverns, understanding trends and what makes people connect, share, relax and cheers in a moment.

At work, it is a family corporate culture – we encourage each other and celebrate each other’s success. We also honestly tell each other when we mess up. We learn from it and we move on to do better. This allows each employee to come to work authentically, fulfill their potential and creativity, stay curious and learn while growing the organization.

Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?

I have led a digital transformation pilot called Ripple, a data intelligence agency that sits within the company, joining forces with a local digital agency to help us build our capability. This has required increasing our Marketing Technology (Martech) footprint and our inherent digital employee capability.

Ripple is aimed to play a pivotal role in Distell’s efforts to get closer to consumers as it looks to give them the richest possible customer experience. It is being set up to be an integral part of marketing’s and the company’s ecosystem, providing its partner agencies with rich data insights for their creative briefs with the aim of delivering highly relevant experiences to their customers.

What change would you like to bring to the marketing sector if given a chance?

Help young women develop commercial skills, confidence, and esteem as they grow their careers. As a young woman growing up in big organizations, it can be incredibly intimidating to develop your voice.

Through my experience and learnings from my own journey, I would like to encourage and help unleash up-and coming leaders with these perspectives and advice as they grow their careers. More women should be leading at the C Suite level, both at a Marketing functional level (CMO) Chief Marketing officer but also at a holistic commercial Managing Director (MD) level.

Given the changing consumer demographics, women are becoming economically more emancipated and are a greater contributor to the ecosystem. It makes business sense to have more women leading, given their innate understanding of this demographic.

Additionally, diversity of thought at a boardroom level will only lead to better and more holistic commercial decision-making. The key is to grow women to be ready for these opportunities.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in the marketing sector? How is your company preparing to be a part of that change?

Evolving humanized, bespoke consumer experiences. This includes new business models that help us reach our consumers meaningfully (e.g., Nike and its move into adjacent categories like tech accessories). We are enabling this through humanized innovation that aims to bring experiences rather than just a product to our consumers.

This includes personalized engagements and customized product experiences at scale. At Distell, we are using innovation pilot plants to help us create tailored products that are not cost-prohibitive, packaging innovation that can help us customize formats and packs for individualization at scale.

We are also using Ripple and digital programs to help us gather first-party data about our consumers, using this data to enrich and personalize their experience with their favorite brands.

Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run, and what are your future goals for Distell?

I am motivated by developing brands with purpose, as their existence is essential for the new generation of consumers looking for humanizing brands that create a positive difference in the world. I would love to continue to drive brand strategy and purpose at a global level. In the long term, a move into a general management role connecting the holistic business and dots would be the ideal path.

What would be your advice to budding marketers who aspire to venture into the marketing sector?

My advice: Stay curious and keep asking why. If you can deeply connect to core human truths, you are able to relate, market, innovate and grow your relationship with your consumers and, over time, grow brands that make a difference.

I believe the words “I AM” frame how people will choose to journey life – “I am a victor or I am a victim.”

To keep myself grounded, I ask myself the following questions frequently – Who am I beyond all the titles assigned to me? What is my purpose in this life? Why should I lead anyone? This helps me stay authentic and aligned.