Ardbeg takes whisky fans to its own planet with new graphic novel
Scotch whisky Ardberg has released a comic book to attract new fans.
Planet Ardbeg is a sci-fi anthology exploration of a whisky brand’s heritage – told in a new way
Ardbeg is one of the most recognizable names in Islay whisky, with its island-based distillery founded in 1815. As the audience for whisky changes in behavior and consumption habits, the distillery is marrying tradition with experimentation to bring a promotional comic to a new set of consumers.
The idea to launch a graphic novel, telling a multiversal story of whisky creation, came from the Ardbeg team’s own passion for the format. Its global marketing and business development director Caspar MacRae is a self-described “comic book geek.”
He believes that the intersection of subcultures made the format a very natural fit. “We loved it because the graphic novel is just such a good medium for storytelling. All our whiskies have a fantastic story behind them, and it was wonderful to have that surreal, evocative, imaginative metaphor for the whiskies themselves.”
The comic itself is entitled ‘Planet Ardbeg,’ and is a sci-fi anthology created in collaboration with indie publisher TCO London and three artists from the world of underground and independent comics: Ronald Wimberly, Emma Ríos and Sanford Greene. MacRae notes that, in format, it is similar to the anthology comics of the 70s and 80s, citing Heavy Metal in particular.
MacRae says that due to the “Marmite” love-it-or-hate-it nature of the Ardbeg whiskies themselves, the comic format allowed it to play up the idiosyncrasies of the flavor in an original manner. He notes that the nature of enthusiasts is comparable no matter the subject: the strong community that has developed around Ardbeg is in part due to the fact it isn’t for everybody.
The graphic novel itself has a limited run of 40,000 copies, 18,000 of which are available in the Ardbeg distillery for people prepared to “make the pilgrimage” to the site of creation. Meanwhile, Ardbeg has worked with distributors to ensure that other comics are available in specialist comic shops, with the remaining editions available to members of the official Ardbeg fan club.
MacRae notes that, while the core product of single malt whisky is deeply rooted in tradition, consumer expectations are changing. He states that the contexts in which whisky is drunk are broadening out, and as a result whisky brands are adjusting their marketing strategies accordingly.
“Consumers are looking for experiences; they’re looking to be engaged and entertained. And that might be through graphic novels, but even in whisky we see experiential [growing]. We see the storytelling in whisky, we see cocktails, we see hospitality ... There’s a real raised bar. [Consumers] are not expecting to get just a glass of whisky – they want an experience,” he says.
And despite the perception of graphic novels and experiential audiences skewing younger, MacRae instead believes that the opportunity comes from the fact that enthusiasm trumps demographics. He notes that Ardbeg’s appeal – like that of graphic novels – is predicated on the product, which allows it to cut across demographics such as age. “The inspiration for this was that we talked about our brand being for anyone from age 25 up to their grandparents in terms of being passionate enthusiasts for Ardbeg. Age really isn’t a consideration in our demographic.”
He states that whisky in general has a reputation for being hard to get into – although that is changing as experiential marketing makes it more accessible. Since Ardbeg has an acquired taste even among whiskies, that makes the challenge to get the audience involved all the greater. He states that even its logo – though instantly recognizable – carries the weight of its heritage. However, the comic campaign in addition to Ardbeg’s other marketing activities is a way to communicate that long legacy in an accessible way.
He says: “One of the things that is a deliberate marketing strategy for us is that we want to communicate our brand in a way that’s relevant and accessible to people. So beyond the marketing strategy – something that’s in our DNA and the DNA of the people of Islay – is that we take our whisky-making very seriously. [But] we don’t take ourselves too seriously. That’s an element that we want people to be able to feel.”
The medium allows the whisky producer to craft a new style of narrative around an old and venerable product.