Diageo’s success with smaller batch ideas and e-commerce keeps Johnnie Walker relevant to craft-loving millennials

Johnnie Walker stays relevent with innovation and craft

Johnnie Walker, as it’s long standing brand platform ‘Keep Walking’ suggests, is maintaining its sales figures (it is the number one scotch whisky in the world), despite people having greater choice and access to a wider variety of scotch brands.

In 2016 Diageo sold over 200 million bottles of Johnnie Walker. That is nearly 25,000 bottles every hour of every day, hardly a craft position when you look at the numbers. But with a portfolio that ranges from $20 to $3000 (or more for very special productions), the brand has allowed itself space to play within a few spheres, maintaining its core audiences and creating chances to play into newer spaces.

Speaking to The Drum last month at Millennial 20/20 in Singapore, global director of Johnnie Walker, Lawrence Law sat down to explain how an older, larger brand that sits within a big name like Diageo is maintaining relevance.

Law is steadfast in his commitment to traditional growth strategies, such as increased distribution and creating stories that help its historically most successful entry point to the brand: from father to son. However, he admits that being strong isn’t the only key to survival, but being there first.

“For us, the value chain and the supply of product and how they buy it is still fairly traditional but we are learning so fast from everything we are doing with the millennial generation that it’s making us change. We are adapting quickly,” he says.

“Let’s take Darwinism, if you are a biology student, and I was a biology student, you would agree that the theory of evolution is the survival of the fittest, and that is the generic term. If you read the excerpt from Charles Darwin’s thesis, it’s actually the species that adapts the fastest that wins, not the fittest. So as a company, we are big, strong and fit, but can we survive? Yes, but we need to adapt. The speed of adaptation is allowing us to learn and that’s a mantra we now have: how fast can we get it to market and how fast can we learn? Everything can now be informed by data and that’s a key change in the way we do innovation and marketing, as well as learning from the consumer,” adds Law.

But with young people being burdened with a fickle characteristic, rightly or wrongly, it can be hard for some monolithic businesses to find relevance. For Johnnie Walker, it’s not about pandering to trends but finding a way to create experiences alongside that.

With regards to the craft trend, a want from consumers for a simplified supply chain and a more local link to heritage, which has stemmed from radically increased access to information digitally, Johnnie Walker has an answer, despite its Diageo ownership.

Law says it answered this with its Blender's Batch programme in which it invited two young influencers in to work with its master blender to create small batch products for people to buy.

“Two years ago, we launched a product called Blender's Batch, with a white label, very craft in simple carton boxes, not sophisticated but quality. Not only did we do that but the people who created the whiskey were mentored by our master blender, who has 40-50 years of experience. The people who created it was Amy Gibson and Emma Walker. The story was Emma went to New York to find the best Manhattan and she created the whiskey such that it can become the best Manhattan,” he explains.

Law says that on a more ongoing basis, highlighting the individuals behind the process will help to form a continuous excuse for it to play in the craft space. “We are looking at core products, as part of innovation and the building blocks of us constantly evolving and creating opportunities for the future. We are riding on craft trend but showing that we want to engage and also that we are not a big corporate organisation that churns out whiskey. We are truly craft and the people behind it, we are exposing them much more in our communications.”

Another route to relevance for the brand has been digitalising its experience, but Law admits that this has created opportunity in more traditional spaces too, surprising the brand along the way. Over two years ago, the brand announced a trial of connected bottles.

One higher end e-commerce experience that it’s launched is a gifting service, in which people can create personalised bottles to send to their loved ones. It sits in app form and has been designed to feel high end and seamless, leaving a decent experience for people at home. However, it has actually come into its own in store, says Law, where they’ve recognised that there is a space for personalisation too, as well as allowing digital transactions.

“If there was no e-commerce, we wouldn't have done this. We built this for the digital native but it is, more interestingly, more successful in bricks and mortar sites. Consumers want to look and play with how it will look on a bottle,” he says, adding that the service is now live in 60 markets around the world.

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