Red Bull’s regional comms chief Eric Thain strong is in the driving seat as he seeks to develop the energy drink’s brand through Formula One’s prowess in Asia Pacific
As he contemplates a possible move into a corporate role, Thain suggests that common sense is the key to effective communications and business management.Identified early as an industry rising star, he now leads the Asia Pacific and Greater China communications of Red Bull, and believes his education sits well with his choice of career.
“If you think about it, it is quite a natural fit. Communications is not unlike law. It is about communicating with people through words. The power of the pen is mightier than the sword, so to speak. Also, I would like to think that, in fact, communication to a certain extent works better than law. It brings matters to the front part of the equation. With proper communication, you avoid a large part of needing to go into courts. It’s prevention rather than cure.”
After leaving university in London, Thain joined PR operator Grey Group in Malaysia, where he stood out as a quick learner and sure footed performer. “I never thought that PR was all parties. However, I probably under estimated the power and professional level of communication in addition to the role it plays in a brand or a company. This is the driving force behind my perseverance in the industry,” he says.
After Grey, Thain took a role with local PR operator Perception Management Malaysia, where he led the account management for Unilever brands. It was to be a short posting, however, before he headed to Weber Shandwick, going on to become a director in China – a post he held for three years and which saw him managing a team of 60 in Beijing.
“I spent all my early career in the agency side. It gave me a lot of opportunities to get thoroughly involved in the clients’ work. It made me really need to know all my clients’ industries. In that way, one becomes an all rounder,” he says.
Reflecting on his move to the other side of the industry, he says he enjoys being “focused on one brand”. “It gives you the opportunity to dig deep into how a brand functions, as well as the intricacies of cross-functions. You can also play a more direct role in really helping business and sales, and even driving the whole marketing mix to achieve the best effects from a campaign.”
However, he dismisses the notion that the in-house field lacks diversity. “Comms is like law, very localised,” says Thain. “Each market is a unique landscape from all aspects: consumer, media type, media behaviour, consumption behaviour etc. One aspect that fascinates me, and which I view as the determining factor in communications in different markets, is the way the media behaves. For example, media in Hong Kong and Singapore are more result-oriented….the story is king. In China, relationships play a bigger role in getting the point across. In Taiwan, it is a combination of both. These can all have a big impact on the communication results.”
No normal day
Working for a fast-moving brand like Red Bull also means there is “no average day”. “One thing I try to do each day is to talk to one media rep to catch up or chat about ideas. It is too easy for senior communication professionals to forget the importance of this and relay it to the junior team members. I like to keep my finger on the pulse,” he says.
The food and beverage industry is also one where the consumer has become a critical stakeholder, Thain admits: “We stay really close to the market sentiments and stakeholders. Communications is the eyes, ears and mouths of the company. Via the tools available, we are able to be aware of public perception of the overall industry, from both a local and global perspective. This includes trends, market place and consumer attitudes. With that, we can draw conclusions, develop corresponding strategies and identify the best ways to reach them in the most effective manner, ultimately bringing the brand or sales to the next level.”
In his relatively short career, Thain suggests his biggest challenge came in Beijing in 2008, when he was working as a key member of the Nike comms team. “With China now being Nike’s second largest market, we had to get it right. Sponsor rights protection is very strong in the Olympics and it impacts on the media’s behaviour towards all non-sponsors. Not being one, we had to think of innovative ideas to reach out to the masses,” he says.
“One of the most distinctive programmes was how we lobbied the media….this was very extensive in order to get the stories across. Apart from the scope of work, there was also the scale and length of the PR effort. This whole campaign ran for over a year – even longer if you include planning – and it targeted the whole of China’s media.”
Thain believes that communications professionals, however, must rise above the specific challenge or campaign on hand. “As a good communicator, you need to be able to understand the point of view of all parties, to be able to find common ground which will result in a win-win situation. Earlier in my career, a wise person once told me ‘common sense is not so common’. This is so true. I find that good communicators all have strong common sense. They are logical and analytical. Also, what works is to really put yourself in the other person’s shoes: you will be surprised what you learn then.”
Recently, Thain was plunged into detail once again as he planned the logistical exercise of bringing the Red Bull Formula One World Champions to the streets of Hong Kong. “We planned it for at least four months and it involved at least 20 government departments,” he says. “It was a successful and outstanding communications production. The event became the talk of the town for the whole week, with massive local and global media attention. With that first-ever live TV broadcast for a Red Bull event in the region, it represented a major triumph and one of the most successful communications outreach projects for Red Bull in the region.”
Professional life aside, Thain, an avid photographer, diver and culinary fan in his free time, offers an interesting perspective into the mechanics of maintaining a good balance between work and normal life. Asked who is his most inspiring manager, he offers a curiously commonsensical answer: “My wife. She keeps me grounded and focussed on the most important things in life. The rest takes cares of itself. And she is a good communicator too!”