Creative Australia Feature

Highland Park turns to direct mail to appeal to malt lovers’ ‘wry sense of humour’

By The Drum | Administrator

April 29, 2002 | 8 min read

Orkney’s gold - the first mailings produced by Navigator for Highland Park used the established visual identity to increase brand recognition.


Sharing the same latitude as Stockholm, Highland Park in Orkney is the northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world. The Drum looks at how Navigator Responsive Advertising brought the brand in from the cold with a unique mix of strategy and creativity.

Way back in the mid-1990s, just before Highland Distillers Ltd appointed Jason Craig as direct marketing and internet manager, Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky occupied a position in the market as a niche brand – supported mainly by PR and sponsorship activity aimed at getting the product into more trade outlets. Although it shared the same stable as The Famous Grouse and The Macallan, Highland Park enjoyed only a fraction of the limelight.

Over the years, there had been some sparks of interest from consumers who had registered to stay in touch with Highland Park – reflecting the malt whisky drinker’s thirst for information about their favourite brands. To capitalise on this, Highland Distillers Ltd gave Navigator a very specific brief to unlock the personality within the malt – and spread the word among discerning malt whisky connoisseurs.

As a starting point, the agency mailed a list of Highland Park drinkers who had shown an interest in the brand – asking them if they were serious about a future relationship. The creative execution for this pack stayed close to the identity of the brand in order to increase recognition – focusing around the distillery’s bicentennial anniversary celebrations and featuring some stunning watercolour illustrations of the Orcadian landscape.


Inevitably, the development of the marketing programme grew as brand distribution increased – with insight from consumer research helping Navigator to arrive at a unique position for the brand as the northernmost distillery in the world.

“This was a great leap forward in finding a real reason to talk to people about the brand,” explains Emma Scott-Bell, Navigator group account director.

“For example, the next pack we created focused on the story of explorer David Hempleman-Adams. When he arrived at the North Pole, the first thing he did was to pour himself a dram of Highland Park.

“This gave us a great reason to talk to people – after all, what better way to toast David’s success than with a malt from the most northerly distillery in the world?”

Despite its relatively small 2% share of the malt whisky market, Highland Park consistently outperforms its rivals in terms of whisky awards and critical acclaim from recognised experts.

Highland Park

Being the northernmost distillery in the world makes Highland Park unique. But is that enough to really turn a consumer on? Does it generate enough emotion? More research was commissioned by brand manager Nicole Walton, which resulted in the brand essence evolving into the phrase ‘northernmost warmth’. And there it was – the Holy Grail. The epicentre of all our creative briefs – representing a move away from the distillery to the emotional and warming elements of Orkney: the people and the place.

While the agency’s creative team set about implementing the new idea of juxtaposing ‘character’ and ‘brand’, Navigator commissioned focus groups to find out what makes malt whisky drinkers tick and how they would respond to this kind of proposition. Interestingly, the overriding finding from the research was that malt lovers warm to a ‘wry sense of humour’, so this was taken on board as the copy tone was developed.

Although the agency was champing at the bit to implement this new learning, a packaging makeover last summer took precedence. Understandably, this piece of news had to be communicated with tact to Navigator’s database of loyal consumers.The creative route at that time focused on the new packaging – with a £1-off voucher allowing prospects to celebrate the new look and reassure themselves that the whisky itself hadn’t changed. In a similar vein, a Christmas pack and a series of invitations to regional tasting events were used to promote the brand tactically.


In the last month, Navigator has been working on a new creative platform that radically brings the brand essence to life – employing the ‘wry humour’ mentioned previously. Using a series of ‘tall stories’ from Orkney, it is hoped to generate more interest in the brand and its home than ever before, with copy taking a more light-hearted tone and an innovative use of illustration and photography.

Alongside this creative evolution, the Highland Park database has been quietly evolving too. “In fact,” says Scott-Bell, “it’s our deeper understanding of the target audience that gives us the confidence to develop the mailing programme, constantly pushing the creative limits. We understand who we’re talking to, and we know what works for them.”

The Highland Park database started like so many others, as a handy repository for names and addresses that were a by-product of promotional activity.

Various sponsorships, exhibitions, competitions and promotions had generated lists of enquirers and entrants, plus there were people who’d visited the distillery itself at Kirkwall. The reality, however, was that little more than their name and address was known – and even that wasn’t always right.

“We didn’t know what they thought of the brand, or even if they actually consumed it,” explains Scott-Bell. “And we didn’t know whether they would be interested in further communications from Highland Park. The only thing to do was to try something simple, and see if it worked. Thankfully, it did.”


Now the database contains not only accurate names and addresses, but also provides a valuable insight into customers’ drinking habits and preferences. This enables Navigator and Highland Distillers Ltd to segment the database and tailor messages accordingly. For instance, a ‘repertoire’ drinker who enjoys several brands can be encouraged, via incentive, to drink Highland Park. A ‘loyal’ drinker, who drinks mostly Highland Park in any case, can be encouraged to purchase additional products, from special bottlings to branded merchandise.

These days, data still comes from a variety of sources, including competitions and prize draws. Everyone involved understands the importance of asking the right questions in a consistent way, so the quality of data is better. Many other methods of collecting data are also employed.

For instance, cartons of Highland Park contain a small card with a prize draw, which collects contact and consumption details. This provides a steady flow of new prospects for the direct mail programme throughout the year.

Another key source of data is from lifestyle surveys, whose respondents tend to be extremely receptive and responsive to direct mail – and have voluntarily provided information about their whisky drinking habits.

Highland Park mailings enjoy a typical response rate of over 25 per cent, which is evidence that the mailings are being welcomed into people’s homes, read and enjoyed – and that the customers want to have a closer relationship with the brand.

Scott-Bell says: “Most people’s favourite subject is themselves, so getting them to tell us their opinions and preferences isn’t that difficult. And our improving results show that the more we know about our database, the more effectively we can make use of our budget.”

Looking to the future, the plan is to continue to develop the database, this will mean a continuation of the existing data collection techniques, but also controlled testing of new opportunities.

This could also be the year when Highland Park’s online strategy really takes off. Until now, there has been a brand website, designed and managed by Dow Carter of Edinburgh. “It’s a fantastic website,” says Craig, “which does a lot to educate people about the brand – and sells lots of product too. But now we want to go onto the next stage, using e-mail marketing to keep close to our customers and to find new ones.”

Finally, it seems, people in every corner of the planet will find it easy to access Highland Park – the distillery that has remained so very inaccessible for over 200 years.

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