Partnerships, teamwork and the right goal: How Brown-Forman Corporation is directing its data-driven strategy

|May 19|magazine17 min read

Founded in 1870, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corporation has a long history of producing quality spirits and wines - manufacturing well-known brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Finlandia, Chambord and Old Forester. As times change and technology advances, the company’s growth strategy has adapted to take full advantage. We spoke to Tim Nall, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer; Dan Muraski, Global Director of Business Intelligence, Data Management and Analytics Capability; and Sam Sorsa, Director of Advanced Analytics, to find out more about their data-driven strategy and use of innovative technologies at Brown-Forman.

Data science initiatives at Brown-Forman are backed by a talented team, with wide areas of expertise and a strong bank of knowledge. From data visualisation experts to “translators who can connect our team to the business,” making data “easy, available and user friendly while getting the traditional data analysts out into the business,” is essential to the integration of analytics into all aspects of the business, explains Sorsa. 

Self-service data analytics, through tools like Tableau, is a key aspect of the strategy. “Bringing the data in-house and having it available for us to use in creative ways is great,” Sorsa says. Modernising technology in all aspects of the business has allowed the data managers to reconcile internal data and maximise the self-service approach.

Additionally, data accessibility and visibility has allowed it to permeate the company so colleagues from all departments have the opportunity to utilise data analysis effectively. Now, there are “40 to 50 sources of information that are available to a Brown-Forman colleague for self-service analytics purposes,” says Muraski.

The information that Brown-Forman’s data analysts utilise and make accessible is wide-ranging across all aspects of the business, both internal and external, and includes data from distribution partners, consumer demographic information, internal financials, yield information, Google search trend data, and more. Access to this breadth of information allows the data management and analytics teams to assess whichever data is important to them and to the business at any given time.

“We’ve had success in stopping colleagues from across the business having to ask for specific data requirements,” praises Nall. “We’ve helped them understand what we have available to answer those questions, and then if we have to go and get some more data, we can.”

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Utilising tools and partnerships is integral to Brown-Forman’s success in internal data distribution. The data movement tool Talend is one of the essential aspects of the company’s strategy. It allows data to be moved between layers in a logical way, and also has a data management function which, in combination with data analytics platform Tableau, helps colleagues see and understand their data.

Artificial intelligence (AI) can be incredibly useful for Brown-Forman, though the company’s Director of Advanced Analytics emphasises the importance of education not only on the capabilities of AI, but on what it needs to make it work and the importance of the human touch.

“It’s something that’s not really new; if you played chess against your computer in the Eighties, that’s AI,” Sorsa qualifies. “But in terms of the practical applications, so far we use AI to identify our competitors, to organise our data into a useable format, and probability algorithms which help the end user with data harmonisation.”

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The role of education in AI at Brown-Forman is definitive. Through education for partners, whether that is within the brand or with commercial partners, the data teams can be “judicious with how we bring it in, making sure it is not just a fad, that it really matters,” explains Muraski.

Brown-Forman is partnering with external companies to see what insights can be gleaned within its production forecasting operations. “We have had a fairly traditional forecasting methodology over the years, but we are seeing, with all the information that is now at our fingertips, how leveraging AI and machine learning can change those processes,” Muraski says.

As its major vendors bring AI into their everyday operations, Brown-Forman has to develop an understanding of what the application looks like and what the impact might be; whether it is in human resources, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, or elsewhere. Again, the data team at Brown-Forman insists that it all comes down to education and making sure any new technologies are adopted smartly.

The right partnerships are, therefore, essential to Brown-Forman’s data strategy. Trace3, which provides advanced IT consulting to help integrate, automate and innovate businesses, assists Brown-Forman in reaching its constituents, engaging with its infrastructure, and ensuring connectivity. Meanwhile, utilising the open source statistical language R through the medium of RStudio helps the teams to make sense of data, as well as to scale and share work.

“We really leverage our partners, whether it’s Salesforce, Google, or others, to help us understand what’s new and what’s out there,” says Nall.

“In the last six months, our colleagues have gone to New York for day-long executive briefings at Google, where they’ve shown us, for example, how Google Ads can help us measure differently. We’ve also held sessions with Salesforce and our brand leadership, both US-based and internationally,” he explains.

The team at Brown-Forman intelligently relies on its partners - “they’re the ones doing a lot of the development in this space, and a lot of the technological advancement that we’re going to use,” said Nall.

While having great partnerships is essential, so is having the right team to implement the strategy. At Brown-Forman, employees across all areas of the business are knowledgeable about their fields, receptive to new initiatives, and embrace change.

“It all starts with leadership, and having a fantastic CIO,” says Nall, in mock egotism. But there is truth in his witticism: building a dedicated team is all about having the right goal to work towards, and the right leadership to guide the way. “The goal was to become a data-driven organisation, so when I look back, I realise if there were no goal, there would be no impetus to do any of the things we have achieved,” Nall explains.

“I can unequivocally say we would not have made, and will not continue to make the advances we have without the skills and the knowledge of the leadership on the team,” he enthuses. Colleagues at Brown-Forman have embraced the changes being made, and use their skills and knowledge of both their field and of the business to make the changes truly worthwhile and effective.

“Our employees are independently willing to give 110%, and have passion about the success of the business,” echoes Sorsa. Giving team members the space and freedom to tackle challenges in their own way, but also providing strong training and guidance, creates a dynamic of trust, faith and support in which new strategies can thrive.

With the assistance of partnerships, a dedicated, knowledgeable and dynamic workforce, and an agile management team, Brown-Forman is rationally and effectively developing its data-driven strategy. Understanding the reach and limitations of AI, the power of education, and the importance of accessible data across business ventures, the data science and analytics teams can leverage technology from a range of partners to assist in Brown-Forman’s enterprising application of data.

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