Whiskey Brand Strategy Whisky Packaging

Inside Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker’s plans to court younger premium drinkers


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

November 3, 2021 | 9 min read

If Diageo and Pernod Ricard want to keep sales of their whisky brands growing, they’ll need to bring the luxury booze to an entirely new audience.

Pernod Ricard wants young people to start drinking more. As its core market of older millennials advance to niche single malts, the distiller needs to introduce its flagship blended Scotch brand, Chivas Regal, to a new generation – a cohort that’s between the ages of 20 and 35, internationally- and travel-minded (and hopefully wealthy), and looking to explore luxury spirits.

As it happens, Pernod’s competitor Diageo would like the same for its flagship blended Scotch, Johnnie Walker. The conglomerate aims to promote Johnnie to global audiences of taste worldwide, and recently launched a spritzed-up rendition of its ’Keep Walking’ campaign for global markets.

Managing long-term customer cycles, from introduction to graduation, is a perennial issue faced by pretty much any maker of luxury products, and it’s one that Pernod and Diageo have faced before and will likely face again as they seek to maintain their dominance of the Scotch market.

This time around, though, there are a couple of spanners in the works. Firstly, today’s young consumers drink considerably less alcohol than their forebears – and at 40% ABV, Chivas and Johnnie are quite alcoholic.

Secondly, the whisky market itself has become crowded and complex, particularly in domestic markets. Drinkers of distinction can now taste acclaimed whiskies and whiskeys from Hokkaido, Iceland, Sweden, the United States, Canada and, of all places, England, with ease (Sainsbury’s, for example, stocks Yamakazi 12-year-old in the spirits aisle). Although sales of whisky are estimated to reach £2.44bn in the UK, export sales are reportedly falling.

Thirdly, the centuries-old heritage of either brand is no longer the asset it once was. As Nick Blacknell, global marketing director of Chivas Regal, says: ”The older generation, not to get stereotypical about it, loves to hear about the cask finishes and the craft stories. The new generation, honestly, they just don’t care – they want it to taste good.”

So how are these dueling distillers working to solve their shared problem?

The right blend

For Chivas, the principal focus has been to double down on its status as a luxury product. Firstly, it’s redesigned its bottle and labels to make them more appealing to younger consumers. Blacknell tells The Drum: ”That generation are big buyers of luxury goods, and luxury goods have evolved their designs to meet that demand. The design cues we see are stronger logos, greater brand pride, simpler designs – clear and bold. It’s a balancing act because with a brand as old as Chivas Regal, you can’t be too radical. But we incorporated some of those cues in there.”

So, while the distiller hasn’t gone full Burberry, they did opt for a taller, slimmer bottle with typography that puts the Chivas family name front and center, and has beefed up its logo, a Scottish symbol known as a luckenbooth.

Secondly, it’s pursued partnerships with other luxury brands, notably fashion house Balmain. The Balmain x Chivas XV collection saw the release of two limited-edition bottle designs created by Chivas and Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing, exclusively available from Selfridges.

And thirdly, Chivas has begun to wield existing partnerships differently. The brand has been the official whisky of Manchester United since 2018, a relationship that was extended last year. Blacknell says the team-up is less about linking whisky and football per se, but leveraging United’s global reach and the club’s links to areas Chivas wants to access: music, social media and the youthful ancillary culture that’s expanded around football itself in recent years. While Paul Pogba might not touch the stuff, the readers of Copa90 might.

”For gen Z and young millennials, football has become a different thing. It’s less about teams and the sport itself, and more about football culture and how that reaches into celebrity and fashion. It’s become integrated into popular culture ... the new content we’re starting to build around football is expressing those links with the wider culture, particularly the fusion between music and football culture. It’s not that the Man United partnership is no longer relevant – it is – but it has to be expressed in a different way.”

The digital luxury market may hold another ingredient for Pernod. Other luxury malt brands, such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, have sold whisky NFTs with some success lately; despite its faults, the concept is a clear analog to collecting Scotch.

Blacknell says Chivas may join them: ”It’s a very interesting area. A natural progression ... so much of our lives exist in the digital arena and so many brands live in a digital space.”

Walking in the other direction

In contrast, Johnnie Walker’s plan to entice global drinkers takes a mass market approach. Julie Bramham, global brand director for Johnnie Walker, tells The Drum it aims to be the ”most talked about whisky in the world” – though building on last year’s worldwide sales increase of 12% will also satisfy.

To that end, consider ’Keep Walking’ – the ad campaign created by Anomaly London, which promotes the spirit as the choice of breakdancers, rock stars and nightclubbers. It’s not your dad’s booze.

Bramham, who’s worked on Johnnie Walker since the mid-2000s, says although the latest iteration strikes a new tone, it has used consistent messaging. ”It is a simple yet powerful idea that is relevant everywhere. It’s very flexible, it can exist as a unifying thought, but can also drill right down to local contexts, product and into people’s own lives. We believe the strength is in that idea, what we get to do is apply that idea to make it relevant in a cultural context.”

When it debuted in 1999, she says, ”’Keep Walking’ stood for positivity, progress and resilience. At this moment, after everything we’ve all been through, those principles feel more important than ever. It’s a privilege for me personally to start a new chapter of this campaign in a way that is relevant for the unique times we find ourselves in today – working through the challenges of a global pandemic.”

Since then, the campaign has been refereshed several times, including by 72andSunny and Crispin, Porter + Bogusky. Bramham asserts that above-the-line activity can make Johnnie the talk of the town. ”Advertising is really important for us. Over the last 20 years we’ve learned a lot about how an advertising idea can work in different markets and how something as universal and timeless as ’Keep Walking’ can flex across different countries and different cultural contexts.

”But it’s important to say that Keep Walking means more to us than just an advertising idea – it’s our brand philosophy and, as such, it’s a unifying thought that wraps a much bigger picture.”

Although ’Keep Walking’ positions Johnnie Walker as the brand for borderless aesthetes, the brand is sticking to its roots. This autumn, it opened the doors to the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh, an eight-floor visitor attraction in the heart of the city, which cost just short of £200m and took four years to complete.

Although the company might have been tempted to site its outpost in Singapore, France or the US – the three biggest export markets for Scotch, according to the Scotch Whisky Association – Bramham says Scotland was the only real option on the table.

”Scotland is the home of Johnnie Walker and the home of Scotch whisky – something which we are hugely proud of. We want to tell the world about that, so building our new experience in the capital city there felt right to us,” she says.

”For people in Scotland who might have visited distilleries before, this is something completely new and transformative of how whisky is perceived. For whisky fans, it is like nothing they will have experienced before. For those who know nothing about whisky, it is the most engaging possible introduction that we believe will make them whisky fans for life.”

She also points out that constant attention to below-the-line activity, and Johnnie Walker’s status on the backbar, is also of paramount importance. ”Success in our markets is also contingent on the constant quality of our whisky itself, about finding progressive new ways to serve and enjoy it, about helping bartenders and customers break new ground, about cultural partnerships, about earned media and a whole host more. It’s these things all held in tension that allow us to stay on the front foot.”

Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker aren’t just competing with each other – they’re competing with a resurgent, increasingly diverse whisky market, and Pernod and Diageo aren’t the only whisky makers au fait with advertising or novel markets. Indie malt maker Lagavulin, for example, has been able to pull in the services of Hollywood actor and comic Nick Offerman.

Blacknell concedes: ”In the past, there were a few global brands in whisky, and some niche brands. Now those niche brands are major players in their own right. Although the overall market has grown, market share is under pressure.”

But if they succeed, the prize will be big enough to share. ”It’s about finding fresh ground, moving into spaces that whisky hasn’t traditionally operated in, in order to free up bandwidth – both to grow Scotch overall but also to make sure that we can find sufficient market share to be healthy and growing long term,”says Blacknell.

”It’s a challenge, but that’s life.”

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