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Blast From The Past – What Old Whisky News Can Tell Us

Lately I have been digging around a bit in whisky news from previous years found via Google. Some rather interesting observations can be made, if you read those old articles now and compare them to the situation today.

1 – Don’t believe in forecasts

In a very interesting article in Marketing Magazine from September 2006 there is a prediction for the Scotch whisky market until 2011:

Though the value of deluxe, malt and imported whiskies will continue to grow, over the next five years the blended whisky market is expected to continue its decline at about 9% a year to reach £829m in 2011. The total market will fall to £2.03bn in the same period.

Now have a look at the official 2012 SWA statistical report. For some reason there is no account of the total market, but only looking at the export statistics we can see how wrong this forcast was:

swa_export

Instead of the predicted contiuous decline exports alone rose year after year to £4.22bn. This is more than twice the predicted volume of the global market.

Market forecasts don’t have to be wrong, of course. It could well be that predictions made today will turn out correct in five years time. But this example proves pars pro toto that you can never be sure. Long term market forecasts have the same accuracy as long term weather forecasts. They may turn out to be correct, but they may just as well be completely off. So why make them in the first place?

And while we have this nice long term statistics in front of our eyes, why not also look at the development in the 1980s? Between 1980 and 1986 19 Scottish distilleries were closed because of the economic crisis back then, peaking at a whopping 11 in the annus horribilis 1983 only. You can see the development in the Scotch Whisky Distillery Timeline.

But look what happened to the whisky market. Exports by value continued to grow almost year by year, more than doubling from 1981 to 1990 to become more or less flat from 1995 to 2005. Only in the years 2006 to 2011 the market has picked up again. Now was it really such a good decision to close all those distilleries because of a temporarily difficult situation?

2 – The perpetual quest for rejuvenation and demystification

I found a very interesting New York Times article from May 1994, over 20 years ago.

These days, the talk of the industry is about appealing to a younger audience, one that – to the chagrin of traditionalists – prefers its whisky awash in Coca-Cola.

“Here people say, ‘Oh my god, not with Coca-Cola,'” said Campbell Evans, spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association in Edinburgh. “But our view is let them drink scotch and Coke rather than brandy and Coke or rum and Coke.”

…..

With their sights now fixed on what one disdainful industry marketing executive calls “disco-going teenyboppers,” the distillers have invaded trendy bars from Barcelona to Boston. With them they have brought cases of free scotch and a message that the stuff goes great with Coca-Cola, 7- Up or whatever else appeals to younger taste buds.

Promoting Scotch as a trendy alternative for mixing to attract a broader audience – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is not a recent phenomeon as some might think. Brand ambassadors and marketing departments haven’t discovered this topic only yesterday.

Tony Greener, chairman of the market leader, Guinness – which makes Johnnie Walker, Dewars, Bells and others – refers to the “lost generation” of scotch drinkers: the youth market. He says scotch has “lost its relevance to young people.”

Almost six years later, in January 2000, the BBC reports that Diageo, the sucessor of Guiness, intends

to boost sluggish sales by appealing to a younger generation who still regard whisky as a “dad’s” drink in a fireside armchair.

Out go images of Bravehearts, castles and old men waxing lyrical about past times over a nip or two.

“The imagery of Scotland has become cliched and stereotyped and not that relevant to today’s young adults.”

In the aforementioned 2006 Marketing Magazine article we find the snippet:

Despite efforts to broaden the appeal of a ‘wee dram’, Scotch whisky is suffering, as younger drinkers are shunning it in favour of lager, wine and white spirits.

In July 2009 The Guardian continues to lament:

In 2008 UK sales of vodka overtook blended scotch whisky for the first time, and while many in the industry dismiss this as a result of youthful palates seeking neutral spirits as a delivery system for alcohol, the truth is that scotch suffers from a serious image problem. It is seen by most as an old man’s drink.

Already in the 1994 article industry insiders had complained:

“Five years ago, a typical whisky ad consisted of a bottle and glass shot with a tag line that reminisced about the hills, haggis and heather,” said Mr. Shaw [Charles Shaw of Whyte & Mackay]. He insists his company was among the first to take the daring step of placing those bottles and glasses in the hands of humans in their ads.

Mr. Espey [James Espey of Chivas] is even more emphatic. He calls kilts and other traditional Scottish elements “passé.”

I cannot help but face-palm about the misconceptions the whisky industry has about their own marketing. I have collected hundreds of old whisky ads, and the latest reference of a kilt I could find was from a long-running Dewars’ campaign that ended in the 1970s:

00058-1975-150-004_s

There are plenty of examples of Scotch whisky advertisements from the 1960s to the 1980s that contradict this perception. Just two examples:

vintage-ads-16l-xpkbywb92dre6yPlease note the glasses in the hands in the 1969 Johnnie Walker ad.

But yet the Scotch whisky industry has still not managed to emancipate from this dusty image of bagpipes and kilts. This is exemplified by the fact that industry members continue to wear kilts at whisky events like trade shows and product launches while their marketing people continue to pray the mantra that kilts are tokens of a long-gone past. If they keep acting schizophrenic like this, the public perception of Scotch whisky is very unlikely to ever change.

One of the vehicles designed to “rejuvenate” Scotch is Monkey Shoulder, launched already in 2005. How about this gem of PR drivel:

“With the launch of Monkey Shoulder in the UK, we are looking to demystify malt whisky and offer new consumers an accessible, great tasting malt that retains authenticity whilst breaking the more traditional malt mold. The feedback so far from the trade has been very positive and we hope consumers will be as upbeat about the product.”

Nine years later, in February 2014, Men’s Folio presents Monkey Soulder as if it was the latest innovation:

Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Brings Scotch To A New Generation Of Drinkers

While authentic to its core – it’s named after an old tale about distillery workers – Monkey Shoulder is a Scotch that blows the cobwebs away from the whisky world and banishes the talk of baffling taste profiles, regional specifications, age statements and distillery nuances that can put people off.

The time has come to demystify the stuffy world of whisky and introduce Scotch to a new generation of drinkers – and Monkey Shoulder is leading the charge.

Actually it was a press release for the introduction of Monkey Shoulder in South Africa where demystification seems not to have caught on yet.

There has been quite a bit of whisky demystification going on since 2004 when it apparently was invented, since I could not find older references.

But single malt is a product which remains extremely difficult to understand – despite the best efforts of the distillers to demystify – and even many regular Scotch drinkers could be hard pressed to distinguish between, say, a Lowland or a Speyside malt.
[foodanddrinkeurope.com, July 2004]

Scotch whisky drinkers are used to serious old-world names such as Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. So where do The Rich Spicy One, The Smokey Peaty One, and The Smooth Sweeter One fit in? These three new malts from Jon, Mark & Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Co., which are just hitting store shelves, represent an attempt by some distillers to demystify a sometimes intimidating spirit and bring new drinkers into the fold. [Bloomberg, September 2005]

Once people scratch the surface, they realise what a magnificent spirit whisky is. There is such a wide spectrum of flavours, but we do have to demystify whisky, and it’s our role to make it approachable. [Annabel Meikle of Glenmorangie in an interview with Decanter, October 2009]

“Also we wanted to incorporate education, and demystify some of the issues surrounding malt whisky so that consumers can really relate to it. And we wanted to showcase key and rare vintages. Those were the fundamental principles.” [Moodie Report about World of Whiskies, November 2009]

“Whiskey’s quite complicated; this is seen as demystifying it,” said Robin Johnston, regional director at Chivas. [About the Age Matters campaign, October 2010]

Deluxe Scotch whisky brand, Chivas Regal, is aiming to demystify the blended whisky category and in doing so help the trade benefit from the huge – and currently untapped – growth potential for premium blended Scotch whiskies in the UK. […] Currently, however, knowledge of blended whisky amongst consumers is low, highlighting the need to educate drinkers about the category to really capitalise on its potential; … [Oops, Chivas again, Talking Retail, March 2014]

For the packaging of the whiskies, colourful packaging, indicative of the taste profile, and clear flavour descriptors were chosen to try and demystify the single malt whisky category and better communicate the flavours that people can expect. [Drinks Report about Singleton Tailfire and Sunray, March 2014]

Designed by The BIG Partnership, the new look website focuses on functionality and navigation and presents information in an engaging and interactive format to demystify whisky.  [Retail Technology about the new Whisky Shop Website, October 2014]

3 – Case studies in rejuvenation

Condition Ginger

In our trusty 2006 Marketing Magazine article we find:

Edrington’s brands include The Macallan and Highland Park. Its strategy has been to concentrate on premium international brands, and as a result, it has sold some of its distilleries. To appeal to younger drinkers it has actively been promoting Ginger Grouse, a mix of The Famous Grouse whisky, ginger ale, ice and lemon.

Not even seven years later, Edrington begins to bottle it:

The Famous Grouse is making a departure from its line of blended whiskies with the launch of The Ginger Grouse, an alcoholic ginger beer.

A few months later Johnnie Walker came out with a stunning new idea:

At the heart of the campaign is the promotion of a signature serve for Johnnie Walker Red Label with ginger ale, which is designed to “challenge the perceptions that exist around the category” and promote whisky as a mixable spirit.

Needless to say that Canadian whisky and ginger ale has been a favourite across the Atlantic for ages.

Failure #1 – JMR Easy Drinking Whisky Company

Remember the Easy Drinking Company mentioned above? Their efforts to rejuventate Scotch proved unsuccessful in 2007:

Meanwhile, JMR Easy Drinking Whisky Company, founded in 2003, has withdrawn its range of three blended malt whiskies – the Big Spicy One, The Smokey Peaty One and The Smooth Sweeter One – from the UK market after disappointing sales.

The company, backed by Edrington, had hoped to “demystify” the world of Scotch and make the sector more palatable to outsiders. Its three founders, brothers Jon and Mark Geary and master blender David “Robbo” Robertson, claimed they had “chucked out the Scotch whisky rule book” through their quirky and irreverent approach to marketing.

Failure #2 – J&B -6c

The same Herald Scotland Article that announced the end of the Easy Drinking range also mentioned the discontinuation of this very obscure J&B blend:

Diageo confirmed yesterday that it has ceased production of J&B -6c Scotch. This virtually-clear blended whisky was specifically intended to attract younger drinkers to Scotch. Chill-filtered
down to minus six degrees celsius, the product was billed as a “classic for a new generation” and distributed to carefully selected style bars and nightclubs.

Diageo said: “We have ceased production of J&B -6c. The decision has been made on a global level and there are currently no future plans for the product.”

To be honest, I have never heard about this bottle before and was not able to find out when it was introduced.

Failure #3 – EH10

Another cryptically named blended whisky from 2003 that was designed to appeal to women. Nothing was heard of it again.

Failure #4 – Chivas Revolve

In 2001 Chivas had a very special bottle designed that could spin:

Chivas came to us with a very challenging brief: to create an identity for a super premium blended whisky that completely challenges the traditional perceptions of whisky – and the super premium white spirits market. It had to be something very special, targeted at high-end urban sophisticates who drink in cutting edge cocktail bars at select locations around the world.

Chivas wanted to reposition its product to a younger, aspirational audience, opinion formers, ‘style people’ who drink at the leading cocktail venues, such as London’s Sanderson Hotel and Lab.

Again, this bottle was quickly forgotten.

Summary

I could go on and on with this, but let’s stop here. Reading all this in fast forward mode gives me one impression:

The efforts of the Scotch whisky industry to broaden the appeal of their product have been very hit or miss and look almost random. While the whisky market indeed looks completely different today than it did 20 years ago, in some respect nothing seems to have changed. All calls for consumer education and image change seem to have been in vain.

There is an ongoing insecurity, almost a lack of confidence, in the industry how to adapt to changing demographics and new consumer trends in the traditional western markets. Maybe this is part of the reason why the big whisky producers have been focussing more and more on emerging markets. But of course those too have, as we know, their very own problems.

What probably struck me the most is how similar the PR about the failed bottlings was to what we hear right now when it comes to launches of new whiskies that are supposed to attract new types of buyers. Even though this is only a snapshot, I have the uncanny feeling that the whisky industry may have not learned enough from the past to prepare for the future.




{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Gal November 24, 2014, 7:29 pm

    superb post oliver. Good work.

    G.

  • kallaskander November 25, 2014, 2:57 pm

    Hi there,

    took a while but I found it….

    http://www.whiskymag.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2982

    and here you could buy it…. or could, once.

    http://www.clickndrink.co.uk/shop/products/jandb-minus-whisky-whisky.htm#.VHSJbGdGRpg

    Anyway, great post and you are right, if you have been around long enough you have heard it all before.

    Even the whisky officials have been around for long enough but they will not listen.

    Greetings
    and congratulations for another great posting
    kallaskander

  • Josh Feldman November 25, 2014, 3:38 pm

    The “appeal to youth/women” by denying what whisky is and pretending it’s white rum or vodka approach is even older. Column distilled grain whisky was sold as gin in the early 20th century. The US floated “light wgiskey” in the early 70s, etc… Every single example I can think of failed. Whisky is a glorious product with a fabulous reputation. But it’s not a club drink. It’s a contemplative drink. Successful marketing for whisky must embrace and evangelize THAT.

  • two-bit cowboy November 25, 2014, 3:52 pm

    Oliver,

    Your post should be required reading for university marketing students and, more importantly, distillery marketing departments.

    Every marketing geek should gain a historic perspective before setting out to reinvent the wheel.

    Well done.

    Bob

  • Oliver Philp November 25, 2014, 4:58 pm

    Proof, were it needed, that the marketing double speak has always been there, full of contradictions and willing to say anything to sell the product. My favourite marketing fail comes from an article published last year on an Australian Web site, promoting Talisker Storm:

    “Age was a thing that the industry peddled basically, because we had a lot of aged stock sitting in our warehouses, so we told everyone that the older it is, the better it is,” Harrington told TheShout.

    “That’s not always true. Actually, age can be limiting at times. What we’ve tried to push now and promote is flavour and taste. That’s obviously far more important than age for a perceived level of greatness in a whisky.”

    Anyone reading that would be entitled to think, “hang on, you’re telling me that we’ve been lied to for years, and you expect me to believe you now?”. But then anyone buying Talisker Storm after reading that gets what they deserve I guess!

    I found the recent launch of Haig Club, at £45 a bottle, intriguing in that I didn’t know how to react. The perfectly passable Cameron Brig sells for half as much in a plain bottle with a dowdy label. Should I express ire, ridicule or indifference? As long as Cameron Brig isn’t withdrawn I think it will be either of the latter.

    • Jeff November 25, 2014, 6:58 pm

      “Demystification” of scotch IS a bit of a joke, given the industry’s paradoxical stance on age (“important when and where we want to discuss it, but not elsewhere”) and Harrington’s comment, frank as it is, is proof positive that the industry simply can’t be trusted and that consumers had better start thinking for themselves. The cyclical nature of what Oliver Klimek writes about here does make me wonder if it’s not really an attempt to fool the public so much as an attempt by marketers to fool distillery clients into continuing to approve marketing budgets for the same old song and dance.

      • two-bit cowboy November 26, 2014, 9:25 pm

        Yip, job security seems a perfect motivation. You probably nailed it, Jeff.

  • elskling November 27, 2014, 11:52 am

    great post again, thanks !

    as mentionned in other comments, indeed whisky seems to be that traditional, complex drink that will probably never fit to clubs and such.

    Marketing departments always feel the need to broaden their potential customer base. Targeting a younger audience looks like some kind of obsession, some unattainable objective, even more so now that prices have risen to a point where i cannot imagine those young people in their twenties – students or youth that just started their career – who usually won’t have that kind of money to spend… or even generally that kind of interest in spirits (more so in beer or cheaper spirits, intended to partyyyyy!).

    I really started to get interested in whisky much later, mainly by my mid-thirties – it’d be interesting to see whether the main profile of whisky drinkers stays much the same over generations? Anyway, by then, i had the money and didn’t go out as much as before (age, family, work, etc.), centers of interest towards quality of beverages, wine of course… and whisky (and rum too now).

  • Bob January 13, 2015, 4:14 am

    That Black & White ad is scary! -is that her buttcrack at the top?!

  • Andrew February 9, 2015, 9:00 am

    Forget cyclical, William Grant & Sons apparently has February designated as their annual, “feebly pretend to care about the consumers month.” Some marketing guy in that company has to be kicking himself, having managed to chisel out a position for himself that consists entirely of publishing the exact same stories every year.

    • Andrew February 9, 2015, 9:19 am

      http://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2015/02/scotch-whisky-is-too-intimidating-for-new-drinkers/
      That’s the same article about Monkey shoulder for both February 2014 and 2015.
      I, a fairly green newcomer to the Scotch whisky world, have never found anything about the industry or the terminology associated with it intimidating, especially with such an involved and passionate online community, folks like you people. Despite this, I manage to read dozens of articles like these every year, decrying the tartan and the bagpipes and the stags, wishing only that Scotch was more accessible to the masses.
      Where are these boogeymen? I get that brown liquors had their heyday a generation ago, before losing out to clear spirits, but has the industry been beside itself with shock ever since? Since 1982, have they been so afraid of appearing the slightest bit less cool than Bacardi or Grey Goose that they hallucinate the Ghost of Scotch’s Past, a sherry-finished Jacob Marley that haunts them in their dreams?

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