Modern Marketing Whisky Creativity

This Burns Night, whisky brands should think about pairing ads with something of substance

By Jonathan Fraser | Founder and chief strategy officer

January 25, 2021 | 7 min read

This Burns Night, whisky brands should pause and have a think about why they need to look beyond tired advertising and weave premium experiences into their brand offering, argues Jonathan Fraser, founder and chief strategy officer at creative agency Trouble Maker.

This Burns Night, whisky brands should think about pairing ads with something of substance

'Changing decades, hundreds of years even, of associations around whisky is next to impossible to achieve with cool ads'

Traditional Burns Night celebrations are among the latest live events to be cancelled by organisers due to lockdown restrictions. But whisky lovers will still be raising a dram or two at home on Monday (25 January) to mark an occasion that also highlights how the old ways of whisky marketing have evolved in recent years.

It’s out with the old blokes sitting around roaring fires in knitwear, in favour of a fresher crowd, as brands try to reach younger audiences through their ads in a new era.

Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s was among the latest to try this gambit, with a festive campaign to build awareness and ’enrich’ its personality among potential whisky drinkers in their 30s.

While it’s encouraging to see a prominent whisky brand being bold and spending big, it seems to me that Ballantine’s is the latest in the category to go down the route of saying 'forget everything you know about whisky and all the traditions and the rituals, you can choose your own path’. The problem with that is that it doesn’t work. Brands can’t engage a free-thinking, younger, audience by telling them to be free-thinkers. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the Ballantine’s film spends two-and-a-half minutes telling viewers the new rules while encouraging them not to be beholden to them. And the brand isn’t alone in this.

One issue is that whisky brands have been too reliant on the advertising at the heart of their communications, which supplies a really shallow message unless paired with something of more substance. Telling people not to follow the rules won’t provide brands with the layer of meaning they need.

There are solutions though. The whisky category has achieved success (UK sales are expected to reach £2.44bn by 2022, with a significant rise for single malt Scotch) as people look increasingly for premium experiences when drinking – younger drinkers are imbibing less generally and searching for fewer, better, moments.

People spend more time with whisky than other types of drink, and the occasion is really about the drink itself. So, with changes to behaviours due to lockdowns and pub closures, there’s a prime opportunity to build the experience around that at home, through digital. That’s why we’ve seen the recent significant investment in AR, personalisation and connected packaging (including Jameson’s personalised bottles, and Diageo’s ’Message in a Bottle’ gifting iniative).

Another route to the next level of growth involves backing advertising messages with something more substantial, and one area to explore is the drinking occasion. People tend to drink a whisky at very specific moments – either a nightcap or a special event such as Burns Night. So, what’s needed is a brand, albeit an ambitious one with a lot of confidence because this a category-defining task, to create a new occasion for whisky.

I’m a big whisky drinker and often looking for new opportunities to savour the product, much like the Thursday night at 7pm national ’Drink a Dram for the NHS’ that I tried to start, but failed to make catch on. However, in a part of Scotland I recently discovered the ’half and half’ ritual – buying half a beer and having a whisky with it.

Brands should be looking at ways to expand and develop more mainstream occasions such as this.

There’s no doubt the imagination exists in the industry. Take Jura, for instance. The island itself has a reputation for creative rebellion, fostered no doubt by The KLF burning £1m in banknotes there in 1994, but established by George Orwell, who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four on Jura. In recognition of something so incredible and inspirational, Jura Distillery opened its exclusive Jura Lodge guesthouse to the next generation of writers to capture the “spirit of Jura” as part of its Writers Retreat Programme.

It was a lovely idea but has never really been taken out to consumers. This is huge shame when trying to engage young free thinkers; many of whom would salivate at the idea of being locked away on an island steeped in rebellious history and charged with writing a literary gem. This genuine commitment to a set of values, would go on to connect with many more people than an ad championing Jura’s rebellious credentials whilst informing you to be rebellious too.

That’s why I find it so frustrating that whisky brands default to the advertising message, making noise about the brand and heritage message has become so commonplace it doesn’t mean anything and telling people not to obey the rules isn’t enough to shake-up the category.

Changing decades, hundreds of years even, of associations around whisky is next to impossible to achieve with cool ads. Instead it requires engaging a young audience with something meaningful rather than telling them what they already know.

Modern Marketing Whisky Creativity

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