Why ‘gnarly’ beaver puppets are key to Whyte & MacKay’s millennial charm offensive
Mr President’s new effort for Whyte & Mackay brand The Woodsman involved working with industry regulators closer than usual to break whisky category conventions.
Barry, the new mascot of Whyte & Mackay’s The Woodsman brand / Whyte & Mackay
Ardbeg tried graphic novels. Macallan tried James Bond. Ballantine’s tried a single-take spot. Balvenie tried Questlove. Chivas Regal tried Balmain. Glenlivet tried ‘hacking’ Google Search. Haig Club, for years, tried David Beckham. Whisky brands have been willing to try just about anything to tempt younger consumers to get a taste of the water of life.
Now, Whyte & Mackay is trying puppetry. A new campaign created by Mr President for the Scottish distiller hopes to relaunch its blended brand, The Woodsman, and reach the kinds of drinkers that remain stubbornly beyond the peaty grasp of spirits marketers.
According to Jon Gledstone, creative partner at Mr President, the idea came from a new brand positioning: ‘Well earned’. “It’s a reward for life’s doers and celebrating honest, everyday endeavor. When we started to translate that into the brief, we wondered how we could convey that this is a rewarding whisky, and then tell that in a really engaging, category-defining way?”
Their solution is a hero film that shows puppet beavers working to build a hot tub, before rewarding themselves with a dram.
“We wanted these to be puppets… we wanted little gnarly characters. We didn’t want perfect beavers doing perfect beaver things. The whole attitude and the tone of our campaign is about doing it for real and walking the walk. There’s a handcrafted element to The Woodsman and whisky, generally, we felt that that aesthetic and feeling would really resonate.”
Though the ad is not explicitly set in Scotland, Gledstone notes that beavers being in the news recently helps the ad’s case; the dam-building mammals are being gradually reintroduced across Britain. As well as defying typical category conventions – no munros, casks or Glencairn glasses allowed – the beavers end the ad with a whisky and coke, a serve that reinforces its younger audience skew.
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Anticipating that their creative ideas might fall foul of alcohol ad regulations that prevent brands from appealing to children, Mr President shared storyboards with the ASA, Clearcast and drinks industry lobbyists the Portman Group throughout.
“We didn’t want to make an ad that was against compliance. And we didn’t just want to make an ad,” Gledstone says. “We could have second-guessed [the regulators] but that might have compromised it. And we didn’t want to be hedging bets on the shoot, with safe bits and non-safe bits, because that takes up a lot of time on set and effort to film and edit.”
“We wanted the work to be the best it could be and the way we could do that was by having everything approved at each stage.”
Their guidance led the agency to make the beavers less appealing to kids – including making the puppets a little “gnarlier” with skewed teeth and whiskers; removing certain instruments or lyrics from the original background song; and aiming for a “drier humor” in the spot.
The campaign debuts tonight with a series of key TV slots against Taskmaster and Married at First Sight Australia on Channel 4, and with a spot against the pilot episode of Sky’s Lily Allen vehicle Dreamland. Other media slots around key Sky and C4 properties are planned.
“The spend on media won’t be as big as some competitors but they want to make him as famous as possible. So we’ve got fewer, but better and bigger spots for him to go out on TV, and he’s going to have a big presence on digital.
“The idea is to launch and get fame for him on TV and then be really heavy on digital.”
Mr President has worked with Whyte & Mackay on a project-by-project basis since 2019 and won the business for The Woodsman last year.
Gledstone says he hopes that Barry [the beaver] – the working name for the ad’s protagonist – can become a long-term brand mascot for The Woodsman in the same way that Edrington’s Famous Grouse has been used for its eponymous blend.
“He is a symbol for rewarding doing and everyone else that does. Everyone loves him, but I think everyone also loves what he stands for and how and how that links into the brand.”
For those with an interest in gnarly beavers, here’s the behind-the-scenes.