Scottish malt whiskies and digital; how websites now play second fiddle to social media

Adrian Porter, head of strategic research, Precedent, brings The Drum findings from Precedent’s latest report into the digital landscape for Scottish single malt whisky distilleries, and asks whether there are opportunities for brand owners to digitally leverage the awareness that will inevitably be created by Diageo’s recent commitment to the industry in Scotland.

Back in June Diageo announced that it was set to invest £1billion in Scotch whisky production over the next five years. More recently further details were released when the drinks giant shared its plans for a significant expansion of its Glen Ord distillery, taking its capacity in Ross-shire to a staggering 10 million litres of whisky a year. And this is only part of their plans, a brand new single malt distillery, massive increases in storage capacity and further expansion of about half of its 28 existing distilleries are all on the horizon.These announcements, coupled with Precedent’s interest in the industry, provoked us to take a look at the digital presence of a selection of 20 well known single malt brands. Both Diageo, and a number of other distilleries in the market, are showing great ambition for expansion, particularly in relation to growth in emerging markets. We wanted to discover how prepared distilleries are to leverage the awareness of single malt that will inevitably be created when Diageo, and others, up their marketing ante?What Precedent didIn order to understand how well prepared our featured distilleries were to meet the demands of an increasingly digital world we assessed how they are using their website, social media presence and mobile to either build awareness, engage or provoke loyalty from their customers and potential customers. We also used analytics and buzz monitoring to understand where the brand names were being successful in creating awareness and engagement with their audiences. Finally we assessed what the brands were doing digitally to break into emerging markets, using China as our focus. The report looks at the digital presence of the distilleries from a quantitative and qualitative perspective – here’s an overview:Websites play second fiddleSurprisingly websites are the poor relation of most brands’ digital families, if they have a website at all. Of the three Diageo brands we included, one (Lagavulin), did not have a website, one (The Singleton) had a two page site encouraging visitors to ‘like’ the brand on Facebook and a third (Talisker) had a site focused on an extreme rowing challenge. For those that did have sites there was little to distinguish them in terms of their design and content. Certainly some are more carefully crafted than others, but in general they all deliver similar content presented in similarly named sections, and with similarly dark and brooding visual styles. Social is clearly the way to goFor most brands, their social presence is more active and resourced than their websites, so while websites stagnate, brand-related content and announcements flourish on Facebook and Twitter. If ‘likes’ on Facebook are a measure of a successful brand recognition strategy then the fact that the 20 distilleries have approaching one million of them collectively must mean that single malt has a vibrant future.Mobile, what’s that?Only one brand (Glenmorangie), had an m. site, none were responsive and apps were variously dated, poorly maintained, or related to a particular short-lived promotional activity making then quickly obsolete.China – not yetIt was a surprise to discover that despite asking every visitor to their main websites where they come from as part of the drink-related age verification process, only five sites were available in more than one language. While all the distilleries’ websites are accessible in China, only one (Glenfiddich) had a registered .cn domain, offered its site in simplified Chinese and showed in a search for its Chinese name on Baidu, China’s leading search engine. The fact that Facebook is not available in China significantly limits the Diageo brands mentioned above in that market. Only one brand (Glenmorangie) was found to have a presence of any significance on Weibo, China’s most prolific social channel. Despite this, distributors’ and enthusiasts’ websites and Weibo pages show up regularly in search results, but are rarely on brand, on message, or exclusive to one brand. What does this all mean? – The PR agency mentalityThere is an interesting feature at the bottom of Talisker’s Atlantic Challenge website titled ‘Press’. It invites visitors to view (in pdf format no less!) various media coverage for its Atlantic rowing race. A typical example shows a clipping from the Sunday Telegraph accompanied by the ‘reach’ of the article, which in the Telegraph’s case was apparently 452,858 on the day of publication. This raises the obvious question of who this feature is aimed at, the website user, or the brand owner? We would hazard a guess that the answer is the brand owner. Either way, in our view this reinforces a key observation from our report, which is that for many single malt brands and particularly those owned by Diageo, their digital presence appears to be managed, populated and created by agencies with a traditional PR-led view of what success looks like.Are ‘likes’ like clippings?Getting exposure is critical of course to building awareness of a brand, and if likes on a Facebook page are the measure, then Diageo are great at it. This success must mean that the brand name has crossed many an individual’s consciousness, but is this really the nirvana in this digital age? The plain fact is that there is little evidence of Diageo having planned an integrated cross-channel user-journey, with a simple architecture that meets audience and business objectives. The company has any number of multi-brand related single malt e-commerce sites, some of which have their own Facebook pages and YouTube channels. But these, as with many other Diageo digital channels, sit in apparent isolation. No doubt analysts can identify upturns in sales relating to particular PR activities, but it seems unlikely that anyone truly understands the digital journey that customers took to make a purchase, and whether in fact the decision to buy a particular brand was as a result of a particular initiative, or engagement on a particular channel? It’s not just about FacebookThere was an interesting question posed on the Talisker Facebook page asking what people would like to see more of on its pages. There were a number of common themes which ran through the answers - visitors wanted more stories from real people who work at the distillery, more pictures of the surroundings in which they work, historical facts and figures, and more engagement in the day to day. In short all the answers led to one thing – a well-constructed, fully-integrated, media-rich and user-focused website! So while Diageo promotes single malts via Facebook and vies for search position with other whisky-related e-commerce websites, other brands have the opportunity to engage with their customers and begin to build a rewarding relationship with them through the customer’s channel of choice.Integration across the landscapeThe lack of logical and in some cases usable integration across digital properties is a fundamental flaw in Diageo’s approach to online customer engagement, and one that could be easily rectified. But it seems that, for the moment at least, Diageo doesn’t really care. So long as customers are hitting its e-commerce sites, and purchasing one of its single malts, why should they be concerned? While we cannot compare sales, we did compare the buzz created by brands’ digital activity for a two month period. While it was clear that Diageo had some success, the brands with the broader, more integrated and strategic digital presence - essentially the ones that performed best in our research findings - were the ones that created the most positive noise by a significant margin.What does it taste like? – Digital sustainabilityWhen it comes down to it, unless someone has actually tried a whisky, they are unlikely to become a loyal customer, which is why analysis of the digital buzz created by the brands inevitably revealed peaks related to PR initiatives rooted in the physical world. These might be based around the release of a new version of a whisky brand, attendance at an event, or the promotion of a high profile PR stunt. These activities are a key part of the traditional PR route to building awareness, and certainly play their role, since the purchase of a bottle of malt is often an impulse buy at an airport, or someone with little knowledge of whisky buying a gift for someone else. However, the clear correlation between the physical activities of a brand and the spikes of digital buzz only goes to reinforce our observation that these brands’ digital properties are PR led. This is manifesting itself in a scatter-gun approach to digitally broadcasting rather than strategically managing and growing ongoing relationships online.So, whilst we would never say that digital can replace PR and events, we do believe that there is enormous opportunity for brands to use their digital properties to build lasting engagement with whisky enthusiasts and brand advocates. This engagement can reach further and last longer than a short lived awareness generated by a campaign. Similarly, we believe that it is possible to create a digitally led approach that brings together the best of the web into something that is cross-channel, technologically agnostic, possibly viral and most importantly sustainable. This latest Precedent report contains numerous examples of how Scottish single malt brands are getting it right in the digital space, but little evidence of a brand that truly understands contemporary thinking around user journeys, integrated digital campaigning, and multichannel engagement strategies. The report makes key recommendations of how this could be done better.Request a copy of the full report into the digital behaviour of Scottish whisky brands.

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