United Spirits owned Scotch whisky firm Whyte & Mackay has had an interesting year as it revamped its marketing strategy under a new marketing chief, which is set to lead to the overhaul of its main brand in the coming months through a new branding initiative as it sets its sights on growing awareness and sales in foreign climbs such as Russia and Germany.
The Glasgow headquartered company, which produces two of the world’s fastest growing malts - Jura and The Dalmore, will aim to reposition the brand of its Whyte & Mackay whisky with new creative work later this year after a successful Christmas marketing drive that saw it become the third bestselling whisky slot in the UK and second in it's native Scotland.
This follows a 24 per cent increase in profits being reported by the company last year of £15.4 million, as speculation over the possible take-over by global rival Diageo was rife. Those talks are still ongoing, even as The Drum meets with Cara Chambers, marketing director for the company, and its communications director Rob Bruce to discuss plans for its brands and her first year.
Chambers, who joined just over a year ago, has the responsibility for leading a number of new strategies to strengthen each of the company’s spirit brands, which also includes Vladivar Vodka and Glayva liquer. A marketer for Heineken, having begun her career working for Guinness, she has a history of working across global alcohol brands.
In recent months, the company has appointed Parisian marketing agency People We Like in a bid to drive the take-up of The Dalmore brand, although it will continue to work with long standing advertising agency The Union, while the marketing of the Whyte and Mackay brand in Russia has been tasked to Grey Moscow who has been developing a country-specific campaign. Meanwhile, the company's Shackleton whisky packaging won the Chairman's Award at The Drum Design Awardsand Jura whisky also saw a brand refresh begin to hit shelves.
“The biggest markets for Whyte & Mackay are in Great Britain but Russia has become a really good opportunity,” states Chambers. “Before now we’ve been trying to translate what we’ve been doing here [within other markets] but now we realise that this is a massive opportunity. In Russia, competition over whisky is fierce with so many ‘made-up brands‘, but if you get it right then it’s a huge market and that’s the big opportunity for us this year.”
The Russian campaign will target a younger audience than the over-40 market that traditionally drinks Whyte & Mackay in the UK, focused more on the 25-35 year-old, middle class in Russia, due to the cost of whisky in the country, which is more of a premium than a bottle of vodka.
Further Russian focus was placed on promotion of The Dalmore Constellation collection (the first time all of The Dalmore whiskies were available in one collection) where it was available exclusively to the Ritz Carlton in Moscow late last year.
“In the UK, we had an amazing Christmas where there was the genuine possibility of becoming the number three brand in the UK. We are now being seen by our customers as a genuine alternative to The Famous Grouse and Bells. Teachers used to play that number three role. For us the White & Mackay brand has always had a real Scottish heritage, but actually it’s becoming a real national alternative.”
The international growth has led the company to seek marketing agencies outside of Scotland, to much mirth from the sector based in the country - although Chambers explains that they have had to do so in order to gain local knowledge and insight that Scottish agencies are unable to offer.
“We have turned to agencies to help us to understand luxury marketing rather than whisky marketing or drinks marketing - and that insight just isn‘t available in Scotland. We’ve recently finished an agency trawl across Stockholm. Hamburg, Paris and London as we wanted people who were experts in luxury marketing. We didn’t care if they didn’t have any whisky experience. Then in the end we’ve briefed someone who will help us grow our luxury brands abroad.”
Chambers has taken on a role that has seen a number of predecessors come and go like buses, and she says that when she took up the position, she described the work taking place as being “a bit like a runaway train” with a lot of small pieces of activity disparately taking place across the brands.
“There’s been a lot of change and therefore not quite enough structure. A lot of people have been doing really good stuff but there maybe hasn’t been enough strategic thinking,” Chambers explains.
“We are trying to learn to be a global business and with the success we’ve had so far we need to capture why it’s worked and worked so well and then introduce a light touch of process around it and strategic thinking about correct ways of doing things and spreading our budgets around. We have tight budgets that we’re working around but that doesn’t mean that you have to do a lot of stuff while trying to be entrepreneurial, but that still needs structure.”
However she adds that having a small marketing and communications team working across a number of brands globally means they need to maintain a flexibility, while also introducing more strategic thinking.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone in the business understood what that was and tried to find the emotional centre for the brand, then create a clear plan for the UK and the market. We don’t have the insight budgets so we have to do that ourselves, as well as agency appointments. We can’t pay consultants to do it – so we went through every brand to understand their target consumer and what was at the heart of it and what we were going to do with it.”
Of the Whyte and Mackay brand itself, Chambers admits that there was no single minded message, which has led to a strategy that will introduce “a very simple positioning.”
Of the brand ethos, Chambers is clear what will be maintained: “Whyte and Mackay has a different proposition from the rest, it’s edgier, it looks a bit cooler, it isn’t clean with a bird or an old bloke on it. It has a bit more style about it and that’s what we want to develop – that this is a brand that’s aimed at people in their mid-life, in their 40s and 50s, but not when you’re settled in your armchair in your pipe and slippers. It has a Glasgow, urban feel about it rather than Highlands and Islands.”
Continued activity will include the Whyte and Mackay brand sponsorship of F1 team Force India, which Bruce described as being able to help premiumise and internationalise the Whyte & Mackay brand.“ He adds: “It’s also great at opening doors from a corporate perspective as it helps position Whyte & Mackay the company, not just the brand, as a very serious player in the global drinks market.”
Of the Diageo deal, both Chambers and Bruce say that with no deal concluded, plans for the future are still very much up in the air, leaving the marketing team to focus on maintaining their own plans without being distracted by possibilities for the future. “Given the deal hasn’t happened as yet, there’s literally no day-to-day impact as a result of that at all, although we know that there are meetings going on in India as they move towards D-Day when it all goes through, there have been no briefings in the background. It’s been business as usual,” Chambers states.
“We just need to make sure that we’re doing as good a job as possible and make sure that the brands are doing really well. Whether we remain independent, whether we get bought out by Diageo…everything is speculative at this time.”
Asked what she would expect to happen to the brands should the Diageo deal go through and the business restructured, Chambers responds: “In Jura and The Dalmore you have two brands that will live on wherever they end up because they’re both so successful. So whoever they end up, within Diageo or within an independent business - they will do really well. I really hope that we’re still getting the chance and working within a structure that allows us to work on the mainstream brands, and that depends whether we end up becoming part of Diageo or remaining independent.”
Whether the deal goes through or not, the main focus for the team, states Chambers, is that Whyte and Mackay become and maintain the second force in Scotch whisky in the UK. “We will be trying to put daylight between us and the other competitor brands, while being a genuine competitor up against Bells and Grouse, particularly within the UK,” she explained. “If we can establish ourselves there then we’re actually securing the future of the brands.”