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240: Unlocking Brand Growth with Belvedere Vodka CEO Rodney Williams

Rodney Williams, CEO of Belvedere Vodka

On this 240th episode of “Marketing Today,” host Alan Hart speaks with Rodney Williams, president and CEO of Belvedere Vodka. With a bevy of experience leading successful marketing campaigns across a plethora of industries, Williams is truly an expert when it comes to closing the gap between a product and its consumers.

To start our conversation, Williams discusses his business school experience and the nonprofit sector before he began his journey to become a marketing expert. In school at Northwestern, Williams quickly learned that “you have a strong chance of getting a good grade by joining a group with people that don’t think like you.” This experience helped him understand a simple fact of life; to truly be successful, you must be open to the perspectives of others.

We then dive into Williams’s experience working for large companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. It was his success at these companies that taught him both “the element of brand-building where you’re really fundamentally problem-solving” and not only the importance of “really tapping into what was already there.” Williams then takes us into his induction into the Wind and Spirits industry, which eventually led him to his current position at Belvedere.

To end the conversation, we discuss how “the push for social justice has opened up brands in a big way” and how “the need for brands to take a stand and stand up for values that they believe in has never been more important.” Williams touches on how the views of different cultures in the corporate business world have changed since he entered the workforce. “We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress!”

Highlights from this week’s “Marketing Today”:

  • Before business school, Rodney ran a direct mail business in Chicago that hired disadvantaged employees.1:53
  • Rodney has stayed in-tune with how the business world affects the communities that it is in. 3:03
  • Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, it was a natural fit for Rodney to attend Northwestern’s business school. 3:35
  • After business school, Rodney worked for J&J and Procter & Gamble in a pursuit to learn sophisticated marketing. 5:32
  • Figuring out how to get the brand in the right position where it can connect with its customers is like a game to Rodney. 6:20
  • In his time at J&J, Rodney learned the ins and outs of working in an intrapreneurial environment. 6:55
  • Over time, Rodney slowly developed into an enhance-growth guy that has been able to take companies over the top. 8:47
  • J&J required that 25% of each business under its umbrella’s revenue had to be from new products in the last three years. 9:15
  • When Rodney arrived at Band-Aid, he was able to take it from stagnant to The New York Times by using Barry Manalo’s jingle. 10:22
  • The ability to understand the essence of a brand and what it means to the consumers allows a brand to enhance its imagery. 12:26
  • A former colleague’s call about a dot-com opportunity led Rodney to quit his job and head to the West Coast. 13:04
  • Rodney’s time working with OnStar eventually led to his entrance into the Wine and Spirits industry. 14:41
  • It was the health benefits of wine that initially drew Rodney to interview with his first wine company. 15:58
  • Robert Mondavi taught Rodney the importance and value of presentation. 17:20
  • Kendall Jackson, the number 1 chardonnay over $10, presented Rodney with an opportunity to launch the biggest product in company history. 18:37
  • In 2011, more women than men graduated from high school for the first time in history and saw the gender gap begin to grow. 20:28
  • Since coming to Belvedere, Rodney has seen that vodka takes people back to experiences they have outgrown. 21:30
  • Belvedere aims to add some class and flavor to an alcohol category that has become stagnant. 22:30
  • Just before the pandemic, Belvedere ran a study that showed people in different markets around the world valued the same things in nature. 25:12
  • Being the nerd that he is, Rodney used to love reading the American Demographics magazine because social culture absolutely fascinates him. 27:05
  • A person’s lifestyle or desired lifestyle is usually reflected in the brand of alcohol that they prefer. 28:47
  • Due to the emotion attached to alcohol brands, they can build community, unlike other consumable products. 29:50
  • Nas’s background as an incredibly successful venture capitalist has allowed Hennessey to include inspirational voices in their campaign. 31:22
  • With Rodney’s vision, Belvedere has been able to connect with many demographics while also crossing borders. 34:05
  • Rodney’s time at the direct-mail business had a huge effect on who he is today because it gave him the opportunity to change lives. 35:54
  • Looking back, Rodney would have been bolder and taken more risks with the opportunities that were presented to him. 38:54
  • Since the death of George Floyd, Belvedere has supported Race Forward, an institution that seeks to rid society of institutional racism. 42:00
  • As a successful African American CEO, Rodney uses his position to support diversity and spark change. 45:23
  • Rodney believes that social media and brands have a dark side in their ability to distort the truth. 48:30

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