Playing in a man’s world: Lisa Srao, Chairman & MD, I Brands Beverages


With undercurrents of cultural and societal concerns, even at a time when women arefast climbing the ladder of hierarchy in numerous professional fields the alcohol industry still remains dominated with male presence. For many years the country saw only men commanding one of the most lucrative industries to be in, but Lisa Srao, Chairman & Managing Director, I Brands Beverages, has given us all a reason to rethink.

Winner of the Best Start Up Company at the Spiritz 2014 Awards and the IndSpirit 2014 Excellence in Packaging Award for Granton Whiskey, I Brand beverages has established a significant presence in a short span of 3-4 years within the country.Known for her astute business senseandan innate marketing genius, Lisa shares with EE her experience of being a key woman influencer in the liquor industry and her outlook towards brand marketing.

Q-You decided to enter the liquor industry around 2008, how difficult was it for you to enter the industry being the only woman entrepreneur in a man's world?

A-I had always dreamt of having my own entrepreneurial venture. When I moved to India from the UK, following my marriage in 2003 and started living here, at that point of time, I found that products in the price sensitive bracket were of very low quality standard and good quality products were extremely expensive. Even getting a packet of biscuits would be chore for me, as they would either be soggy and the imported ones would be priced very high.

And since my father was in the business of liquor distribution having launched Double Dutch beer in UK, I had an exposure to that industry and hence, during living here, I started noticing a very specific gap in the market in the Indian liquor industry. The premium liquor segment in India’s mass market was completely under-utilized. And thus, I envisioned building a liquor business in this country that provided the market with value for money products yet giving the consumers a taste of international standards. With the thought of bridging this gap with international quality products catering to the value segment flanked by my entrepreneurial spirit, I launched I Brands Beverages in 2008. We invested in extensive R&D over 2 years, I realized that I could not bring in products from abroad like I envisaged before, but to be truly price competitive I must manufacture in India itself. The tastes in India greatly vary from state to state and from that of abroad and that it was important to create an Asian specific brand at that price segment. We researched the blend, packaging and segment very carefully before launching. We commenced India operations in August 2010 with the launch of Granton Whisky, our flagship product in Uttarakhand, as a test market.

It was only when I entered this industry that I noticed that there are no other women who have built a spirits business from scratch. For me it was an entrepreneurial journey as would be for anyone else. . As a twenty first century woman your choices are limitless in how you can make a difference in yourself and the world around you.

Q-You came in India with a new liquor brand against already existing competition in the market? What were the challenges that you faced? 

A-We faced a lot of challenges initially. The biggest challenge was perhaps that the liquor industry was a financial intensive industry, and at the point I didn’t have the kind of funds to play with, that is the norm of the industry.  Also, being an unknown company, we had a hard time getting distributors to work with us. Regulations in each state is also very different from the other in terms of excise duties, licenses required etc., which makes this business incredibly challenging.

However, we took a slow and steady approach following a semi urban – village route in distribution developing a solid base foundation in the states that we are present in, before opening up other states. We also perfected the blend of products along the way.

Today, we have four fantastic products in our portfolio: Three Royals, a premium whisky brand, Granton, a deluxe whisky brand which has also recently been awarded for its packaging at the INDSpirit 2014 Awards, Rum 99, a Jamaican flavored dark rum and Granton XO Brandy, a rare French Brandy that have been receiving phenomenal responses across markets. We are currently operational in 10 states across over 5000 retail outlets. We are rapidly expanding across the country opening new states including metros and new retail outlets.

Q-Since liquor brands cannot do much in terms of above the line advertising, how do you market your products? 

A-We have undertaken minimal marketing campaigns so far. Because we have a superior quality international standard product here, it sells itself.

Having said that, all our initiatives focussed on increasing the interaction with the end consumer thus building favourable brand salience. We focus on retail marketing - Point of sale branding or Retail shop branding activities that increase brand visibility or activities that would push the consumer to buy our products be it gifts to consumers like pens, key chains, glasses, schemes like Buy one Get one etc. We also have focussed on activating the brand at pubs, bars and lounges to drive awareness and trial. In the local markets of Punjab, Haryana, Goa etc. we organise Three Royals Party Nights that are essentially DJ Nights, which is very popular with our TG. We sponsored Oktoberfest in Goa; Rum 99 being the only spirit brand that was available, created an opportunity for trial and acceptance. And, lastly we use  social media to speak to our consumers on a daily basis.

Q-How are liquor brands in the business today engaging their customers through experiential campaigns?

A-Liquor Brands today, connect with their customers through marketing activation campaigns in Sports, Music, Films and Fashion platforms. One of my main competitors does Fashion Week, another does Live Music Concerts. Some sponsor sports teams. We do Party Nights. These experiential activations help us build a relationship with our Target Group.

Q-What are the challenges being faced by the liquor industry today? 

A-There is also cultural bindings and a stigma that is attached to this industry, which I think is one of the biggest challenges we face today. If we consider, the liquor industry as any other industry that generates revenue, we think problems could solve.

The industry also needs to operate in a simplified manner that would make doing business in India much easier. A uniform harmonized state excise policy and simplified labeling regulations would help grow revenues, lessen complexity in the trading environment, makes it easier for the authorities to reduce illicit alcohol production.

Q-What has been your overall experience in the industry?

A-I had worked in the media industry in UK prior to moving to India and felt Marketing Management was the right field for me.

However, having entered the monopolistic and cut throat liquor industry of India, I believe I was born to be in this business. I love the challenge of being the only woman having created a spirits business in this industry from scratch. Even though this industry was something that I had not always intended to get into, it is something I feel I thrive in today.

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