Jay Sethi is the brand marketing lead for Smirnoff, the largest and most important name in Diageo’s family of drinks brands. We sat down at Advertising Week NY to talk about his experiences in marketing, the importance of risk-taking when it comes to shifting perceptions and why consumer brands must always be at the forefront of change.

What does it take to look after one of America’s most iconic brands? As you may have read last week, Smirnoff is one of the undisputed giants of the drinks industry and for over 150 years, it’s iconic red and white bottles have held the crown as the number one vodka brand in the world.

Introduced to America in 1933, when exiled Tzarist distiller Vladimir Smirnoff sold the US rights to his vodka to fellow Russian émigré Rudolph Kunett, the brand has embedded itself into the fabric of drinks culture and has turned a nation of avowed whiskey lovers into loyal vodka drinkers. 

Throughout its eighty years on our shores, the brand has grown to become one of our most recognized consumer brands. Not only does it regularly outdo more expensive competitors in taste-tests, but it also fueled America’s long love affair with the cocktail; popularizing the Screwdriver and Bloody Mary as well as LA’s first signature cocktail, the Moscow Mule. It even managed to return home, reportedly becoming the illicit brand of choice for Soviet soldiers just prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“Brands change all the time—it’s only the values that should stay the same.” Smirnoff’s Jay Sethi discusses his brand’s commitment to purpose.

Taken just as a brand, Smirnoff’s heritage is undeniable, and since 2016 the person in charge of its safe-keeping has been Jay Sethi. Recently named CMO at the Diageo Beer Company, until September, he was vice president, brand marketing for Smirnoff and emerging brands where he infused his strong passion for inclusion and diversity into the brand. 

With a track-record when it comes to transforming large, legacy brands through digital, retail, media and entertainment marketing he has been the driving force behind many of the company’s iconic campaigns of recent times; including the award-winning “Love Wins” and the recentWelcome to the Fun%” and ‘Welcome Home’ activations headed up by Laverne Cox.

We caught up with Sethi at Advertising Week NY to discuss his work with the brand and how he helped to reinvigorate Smirnoff and reconnect it with its founding sense of inclusivity and purpose.

What was your introduction to marketing?

Y’know, I didn’t really know what marketing was for quite a long time. I jokingly describe myself as a millennial, multicultural Midwesterner and it wasn’t something that ever came up. After graduating from the University of Chicago, I ended up working in politics for a little bit before I was lucky enough to land a job on the marketing team at Procter & Gamble.

Let me tell you, that role really changed my career. One of the blessings of that experience is that I got to see America. Now that I run one of the big, iconic American brands, I think traveling around so much gave me the experience to be able to understand the country.

What value does marketing bring to Smirnoff?

Smirnoff has been around for 150 years, and I really see myself as a steward of that brand. I have to leave it better than I found it; so I think the marketing team adds value not only by pushing forward the values that we’ve held for a long time but also by leaving a mark and driving our agenda forward.

I also think diversity and inclusion are important—not only for Smirnoff but for the industry as a whole. There are still levels of under-representation that we need to tackle, and I think my role and the choices that my team and I are making, are also helping to push that side of the conversation forward as well.

The idea that marketing needs to look like the people it serves is something you hear a lot.

Exactly. I might be of mixed heritage and gay, but often, my Midwestern-ness is the most unique perspective that I can offer. I love living in New York, but we need to remember that we market to the country as a whole, and I’m proud to be able to represent different communities. 

Marketers talk about intersectionality a lot, but that’s because it’s our job to bring communities together. We have to have the courage to do this kind of work and create these spaces where people can come together.

What are the main challenges when it comes to managing the Smirnoff brand? Is it hard to be nimble when you have so much brand heritage to look after?

If you manage to survive 150 years—my friend, I think you’ve shifted quite a bit. This is a brand that has gone through a lot, such as wars, economic collapses, you name it. But that also means that Smirnoff as a brand is fundamentally strong. It has always been able to shift to reflect American culture. 

We were the first to bring vodka to the US. The first great American cocktail, for example, was the Moscow Mule and we helped to invent it. A couple of decades after that we introduced flavored vodka to America and, boy, did that explode. 

Today’s generation is more focused on leading healthier, more holistic lifestyles, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that we reflect that. So, for example, we’ve just begun to roll out a zero sugar line. On the other hand, we’re just seeing the beginnings of a seltzer craze, and we’ll no doubt be a big part of that also. 

Working on a brand like this, you need to be able to embrace these periods of transformation. Being the biggest often means we’re able to drive culture forward in a way most other brands can’t.

Do you think that a lot of brand managers are almost too respectful with the brands that they represent?

It’s true that a lot of marketers at legacy brands are indeed afraid of change, but I think if they look in their archives, they’ll find that brands change all the time. It’s only the values that stay the same. It’s like the saying goes: “Often the fruit is in the root.”

For me, knowing the heritage of the product gives me the power and courage to be able to make changes. And, at the moment at least, I don’t think we have a choice. We are living in a great age of disruption and consumers are starting to look more closely at the products that they buy. One of the significant parts of this has been the rise of purpose, and the public at large are looking for brands that can be authentic allies and remain true to their values.

In a nutshell, how does Smirnoff’s brand today reflect the company’s values?

I think it comes in two parts. First, our accessibility. Smirnoff has always been an affordably priced vodka. We may compete with some of the most expensive vodka brands in the world, but by principle, we don’t charge more. We want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy our product, and we believe that everyone should be able to.

The other half is through our marketing and how we express ourselves. That’s why our commitment to hiring a diverse set of characters is so important. By being everywhere and showing everyone, the audience can really think, “finally here’s a brand that gets us.”

Part of that commitment has been Smirnoff’s long-standing support of the LGBTQIA+ community. Could you tell us about your experiences working on this project?

I think first and foremost, our support for the community goes back decades. I always say to my team if they dared to do that then, then we must have the courage to think that big now.  

Our values mean that Smirnoff has always been an accessible, inclusive brand. We serve over 50 million people in the US alone, so almost by definition, we have to be inclusive. We serve every income bracket, every age, every race and every gender. That gives us a responsibility to really help move LGBTQIA+ rights forward. But we also need to do it in a way that almost everyone in America can applaud and feel good about. 

On a personal level, I’ve also been going through my own coming-out process. It’s been extremely difficult at times—as I mentioned, I’m a Midwestern kid; my mom is Mexican catholic, and my dad is Indian Hindu, and both are of fairly conservative backgrounds. But overwhelmingly it’s been a very positive experience.

Smirnoff’s recent campaigns with Laverne Cox positively reflect the brand’s inclusive purpose. How did the partnership come about?

Mainly because Laverne is so great. We didn’t hire Laverne because she’s an activist or a trans woman, we hired her because she’s accomplished and funny and humble—values that we cherish as a brand.

What I’m most proud about is the fact that she not only fronts our PRIDE campaign, but she’s also the star of our ad campaign all year round. We just got our test scores back actually, which are very important in the industry to make sure that the work we put out is effective and it turns out that we’re in the top 5 percent of industry advertising. I think that says so much about America’s progress as a nation. Regardless of who she is, her character is just so fantastic. The relatability between her and the brand is so strong that people just love the work. That says a lot.

How has working with Laverne made you reassess brand purpose as part of Smirnoff’s messaging? 

It’s true to say we are definitively taking a step forward in this space and it’s also true to say that it’s working. We’re really excited by the direction we’ve been heading in with our recent creative campaigns, and for that reason, you’ll be seeing a whole lot more of it. 

I think it’s also a testament to the time we’re living in. It’s a time when you need to stand up for your values and demonstrate that they can be real allies. We’re proud to be able to carry the mantle. We’re the world’s number one vodka brand, if we can’t do that, then I think it makes it so much harder for other people to be able to do the same.

Diageo, in general, invests heavily in spokespeople to represent their brands. Could you give us an insight into the process you have for choosing talent?

It’s certainly true that if you go back into our archive, you’ll find that we’ve partnered with celebrities throughout our history. It’s one of the ways that we demonstrate that we’re a big, popular brand. 

We always try to partner with folks who embody our values like accomplishment and humility, but with a little bit of wink. It’s the reason we work with Laverne, but it’s also why we’ve worked with Ted Danson. If there were a checklist for people when it comes to representing Smirnoff—then it would be a person who is, on the one hand, successful and accomplished, but who is also down-to-earth and is just like us.