Whisky Roundtable #3
The third installment of the Whisky Round Table is here. The contributors were whisked off in their limousines to an undisclosed location to spend a few bottles…I mean hours… in deep thought and discussion about yet another weighty whisky issue. This time around, we tackle the sticky issue of marketing. Heavy marketing and advertising is everywhere, the whisky world included, and despite a person’s best efforts to remain impartial and open-minded, we’re all affected by these sneaky, nefarious practices to make us choose one thing over another. So, without further ado, this month’s question:
We’re all prone to being influenced by advertising whether we like it or not , so let’s be honest here, how susceptible do you find yourself to the devious charms of marketing? How much does the design of the packaging, labeling, distillery website, etc. influence your excitement and opinion about a malt and your decision to buy or not to buy?
Chris – Nonjatta
I am a real sucker for packaging and, in particular, independent bottlings that have distinctive and striking label designs. Limiting my comments here to Japanese whisky, I need to mention the Number One Drinks Company Noh Series bottlings and Full Proof Europe`s risque Big Butt labels, but the classic example is the Ichiro`s Malt “card series”, which allocates a playing card to each single cask from the old Hanyu distillery (Queen of Hearts, Six of Diamonds etc.). It is a bit like adult trading cards: once you have got one card, you want to get them all. Very clever indeed and it is no accident that the fellow behind the series, Ichiro Akuto, is a former Suntory marketing man. Suntory are renowned as one of the most sophisticated marketing operations in Japan, not just in the whisky world but in the entire consumer sector. Some really famous novelists and graphic artists worked at Suntory early in their careers before establishing themselves as artists. Suntory`s ads and slick marketing have been partly responsible for the resurgence of whisky over the past couple of years in Japan, but I find that it is the small-scale Indy bottlers whose packaging really gets me slavering.
Ahh, perhaps you allude to the ‘fashion’ of the last few years where marketeers have decided products need to stand out on the shelves more, so they changed the bottles to be slimmer and taller, often to the point where they don’t actually fit on typical shelves any more.
But seriously, I guess marketing must work for the majority of people otherwise we wouldn’t hear about websites crashing due to the first day, nay first hours demand for NAS bottlings with fancy names.
Goodness, can I be serious yet? Probably not.
But do I consider myself affected by these marketing gurus? Well, when it comes to whisky I am not at all convinced that I am swayed by them as my current personal project is to try and sample drams from as many different distilleries as possible, so no matter how well that latest Glen Googly or Glen Wonka is presented, it won’t convince me to stray from my search for that missing Hillside, Kinclaith, Killyloch, craiglodge or affordable Ben Wyvis.
When I do stray from my ‘mission’, I still like to think that my acquisitions are more a result of recommendations and reviews from my peers as opposed to those damn sneaky, nefarious marketeers, but who can say for sure as they are damn sneaky!
Karen & Matt – Whisky For Everyone
We think that the more you learn about different whiskies, then the ‘devious charms of marketing’ play less of a role. This is due to your increased knowledge about what makes a good whisky, the particular qualities or characteristics of a certain distillery and your own personal tastes. Where marketing mainly plays its part is in attracting new customers, whisky beginners and the non-connoisseur whisky drinker. These account for a large percentage of whisky purchases – the occasional drinker, the birthday/Father’s Day/Christmas gift etc – so a well executed marketing campaign has the potential to pay huge dividends.
With this in mind, the best marketed whisky brands have to be those that have packaging that allows them to stand out from the crowd on the shelf. As a non-connoisseur, these are going to be the products that attract your attention from the vast and confusing array of choice. Matt works full-time in a whisky shop and sees this in action every day. Many brands have revamped their packaging and brand identity over the last five years with this in mind (some more successfully than others, let’s be honest!). The introduction of modern and innovative packaging has led to many of these whiskies showing a large increase in sales, so a distinct marketing strategy seems like a no-brainer to us. Good examples of successful whisky marketing/brand revamp/new packaging include Ardbeg, Balblair, Bruichladdich, Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Monkey Shoulder and Smokehead. All of these seem to be trying to do something different and make the market more diverse and interesting for the consumer.
Ultimately, good marketing in whichever form it takes (packaging, website, advertising material, event sponsorship etc) should not be seen as ‘devious’ but appreciated. In any area of consumer life, when marketing is done well it contributes to a buzz around a brand. In the case of the whisky industry, it can be used as an essential tool to grow a brand’s identity and to attract new drinkers to a product. It seems a shame that more whisky brands and companies do not use creative or innovative marketing, as they are surely losing new consumers in comparison to those who are.
Having studied Art Sciences, of course I’m attracted by a nice bottle. Nothing wrong with that! In fact, one of the brands that got me into whisky was The Glenrothes. They were one of the first distilleries who realized that a unique packaging makes your single malt stand out on a shelf (their grenade-like bottles and cardboard frames were introduced in 1994). After that, others followed the same path. Occasionally I’m still stunned by the beauty of the object itself. Bruichladdich is really ahead when it comes to modern bottle design, but Highland Park and Compass Box are also worth mentioning. At the same time, some of them are exploring other marketing tricks that I find less harmless than just a nice bottle shape. Nowadays everything needs to be the peatiest available, the oldest, the youngest, the smallest batch, the most locally produced or the most experimental in one way or another. The fact that these experiments are rarely interesting for their intrinsic drinking qualities seems to be forgotten sometimes. It has taken me some time, but I’m now at a point where marketing can surely attract my attention to a certain bottle, but never persuade me to buy it without tasting beforehand.
I have to be honest and state that I used to get swept up in the frenzy surrounding limited editions and special releases. I’m sure we all have an Ardbeg Committee bottling of some kind in the cupboard or a festival bottling which sold out within hours, if not minutes, purchased without even knowing if the spirit was good. But I am definitely weaning myself off this habit and more of my purchases are now based on the criteria: is it good whisky? I think rather than fancy packaging, claims of rarity and suchlike, I am now swayed by statements of the whisky being cask-strength or 46% and above, it being non chill-filtered and it being competitively priced. I scrutinise the label for the ABV and mentions of ‘natural’ and ‘uncoloured’. Perhaps these are the new buzzwords in whisky where the consumer, or at least some of us, are demanding the malt to be bottled straight from the cask without any tinkering. Certainly these phrases appeal to me more than ‘Limited Edition! Only 18000 bottles produced!’. Happily I believe that this new marketing is growing and more and more whiskies will be labelled as such. There are some things you just have to have on the shelf for the kudos, though, and there always will be, such as the first ever bottling from a new distillery or particular release that just grabs your attention and you can’t resist. That’s part of the fun of drinking whisky and long may it continue.
Of course what’s inside the bottle is what counts (as the marketeers so often tell us ) Hence why we love getting sent plain old samples. To your friends, they may look like urine, but to those who care, they offer a totally unfettered and naked spirit, just the way it should be. It is, in essence, the ‘Judge me for who I am, not for what I happen to be dressed up in’ approach.
If one campaign were to stick out as perfectly made up, yet highly plausible it would have to be Ardbeg’s wonderful Serendipity ‘mistake’. Someone was off to the Job Centre if they didn’t clear that mess up. Dumping gallons of vintage Ardbeg into the same vat as some plain ol’ Glen Moray doesn’t earn you a promotion, but making a legendary whisky out of the f***up certainly does!
I drew a graph in my notebook where my susceptibility to all visual aspects of whisky as a consumer product is a non-linear function of time/experience presented against hypothetical susceptibility points. Towards the left hand side of my x-axis, where t = just over zero, my function line disappeared somewhere in the cloudy Edinburgh skies. Back in the days when I didn’t know jack about whisky my only guideline was packaging and brand communications. I vaguely remember buying a litre bottle of Dewar’s when flying home for Christmas years ago, which probably wouldn’t happen now. My function dropped suddenly in the first couple of years of my whisky-aware life and now it draws ever-more slowly and ever-more-closer to the horizontal axis on my chart while extending it to the right at a steady pace, a grim countdown of hours and minutes.
These days I get almost all of my whisky in sample bottles and it suits me just fine. I grew not to care. Or did I?
Well, I have never actually paid for a bottle I didn’t find aesthetic. This renders my function pretty useless I guess. I like some whiskies that come in appalling packaging but I never buy them, therefore I should conclude that I am not at all immune to marketing, I just pretend. I draw hocus-pocus charts to feed the mathematician in me while watching that brilliant Ardbeg 1965 ad on YouTube. The truth is I am a terrible sucker for a pretty-looking bottle and a snobbish one for that matter. How I wish I could go back to the day I saw that black and gold matt box at Edinburgh airport. How I wish I could ask myself one more time: why is this bottle so round if the flavour is so square?
In all honesty, I couldn’t care less about the packaging, labeling, or distillery website: I used to purchase Glen Garioch when it was adorned with pink tartan and a stag; the 4th release in Edradour’s peated range, Ballechin, had one of the ugliest blue boxes I’ve ever seen (but the whisky was fantastic) the 3rd release was lime green (but the whisky wasn’t nearly as good); and no-name bottlings like Ellenstown and Classic of Islay have no marketing presence but serve up delicious whiskies. On the flip side of that I would have purchased a bottle of Highland Park’s Earl Magnus whether or not the 18th century style glass bottle came in the most amazing wooden box. The same is true of the spirit contained in Octomore’s black coffin and Arran’s Peacock and Rowan Tree adorned tubes and bottles.
The ‘marketing’ aspect that gets my attention is how the company conducts itself on social media and in the flesh. When distillery manager, John Campbell takes a second to reply to a message I’ve sent him via Twitter I think more highly of Laphroaig. Seeing how much David Fitt, the distiller at St George’s distillery in England, enjoys hearing good things said about his spirit makes me think he takes great pride in his work and wants to produce more great spirit. Or take a look at Raymond Armstrong’s commitment to Bladnoch’s forum (very different from, say, Diageo’s classic malts website). A friendly, personal encounter with a member of the whisky industry is more likely to get me to part with my money than reading the gussied up, often silly tasting notes, on the back of a bottle of Ardbeg, for example. Watching Jackie run around Ardbeg distillery in search of a bottle of Supernova 2009 said more to me about Ardbeg than any marketing bumph!
As hard as it is not be influenced by marketing, I have to admit I am partially influenced by it, and I guess many of us act the same. When I walk into a whisky shop browsing the shelves, packaging and labels do make a difference. If I spot 2 whiskies I don’t really know, I guess the ones better designed will grab my attention and I will end up tasting it before a shabby labeled whisky that can be ten times better.
Marketing also is a great influence. The Ardbeg marketing machine for instance. How excited are we when a new Glenfarclas comes out? and how much buzz and excitement was felt when the Rollercoaster PR machine started working? Ardbeg site was down, and so many people wanted to get a wee bottle of this young vatting. I was no exception.
So I guess Marketing does work.
One thing I don’t really like is whiskies that emphasize too much the bottle and case at the expense of the quality, and then charge a premium. although this can also be misleading. For example the Octomore 2.2 Orpheus has a very nice bottle, Black and red more like a high-end vodka, but is insanely good.
Marketing, Marketing, can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
I would say that when I first began drinking whisky, a shiny package would catch my eye and could have a good deal of influence over what I purchased. At the time, the packaging definitely had an inordinate amount of influence on my purchases. I credit three specific events with breaking me of that reliance on slick marketing:
- I attended a tasting by the folks from Scott’s Selection – their packaging (to my mind) leaves a lot to be desired, but I tasted some amazing whiskies that evening and walked away with one of my favorite bottles to date – the 1967 Longmorn-Glenlivet. That tasting event showed me that great whiskies could come in lackluster packaging.
- The release of Diageo’s Manager’s Choice – marketed to all high hell (including a blow-up in the whisky blogosphere), this collection contains some great whiskies – or so I’m told. See, I live in America and I have a relatively limited budget for whisky. So these bottles not only are unaffordable to me (and it is of debate as to whether price matches quality), they are not even available for purchase. This really soured me on a lot of the whisky industry’s marketing practices – particularly its Eurocentrism and its focus on the ultra premium market. Indeed, this is one of the inspirations behind our 40 Whiskies Under $40 series.
- A head-to-head tasting of Blue Label and Chivas Regal 18 – A lot of whisky blogs got asked to participate in this scotch-based version of the Pepsi Challenge. At Whisky Party, all three of us came away with the impression that the Blue Label, while a very good and interesting whisky, just didn’t have the vibrancy of the Chivas 18. When the holy grail of blended scotch comes up short, you lose a lot of faith in the marketing myths that once shaped your beliefs (and palate).
All of which is to say that I’ve come to realize that the marketing is a lot of bullshit, and the only real advertising that I trust comes from the tasting notes and reviews of my fellow bloggers, my friends, and my personal tasting experiences.
As impervious to marketing as I think or wish I were, Peter, you’re right. We are **all** susceptible to the evil whisk(e)y marketers. I take it back, they’re not evil. They’re smart as all hell! What’s worse is, even for those of us who can resist that new “Meganova” or “Merle Agnes” on the morning it comes out, these guys & gals know that all they have to do is wait for us to have our evening drink and wham, bam thank you dram, we head off to Loch Fyne, Master of Malt, Shoppers Vineyard (dots com), etc… and we buy. They get us post dram(s) when our defenses are down, smart little buggers! Very honestly, I have made a few purchases after a second dram…
It’s the limited editions that tend to get me. Mention the fact that there are only 3500 bottle and can expect a purchase from me. On top of that, if it’s not available in the US (like SO many whiskies are), the “want factor” is raised a couple of notches.
And yes, packaging, to me, is a HUGE part of marketing. If the label looks blah or stupid; or, if the bottle is plain jane, I tend to look away. On the other hand, paint your entire bottle in a matte black, go cask strength, boast three various wine casks finishes and throw a Star of David on your bottle and make odd allusions to witchcraft and… $hit, I’ll buy.
I tend to find branding, marketing and advertising perversely interesting. I wish we were not inundated with logos and ads nearly every minute of every day, yet at the same time, I find the idea and creation of logos and ad campaigns to be fascinating. I mean, people work hard to distill (sorry) a product or a brand down to it simplest, most effective selling message…their creative solutions to this challenge are often impressive.
For me, in terms of whisky (specifically Scotch), much of my reaction towards marketing comes from a rather personal place. With a Scotch-Irish background and Dad who introduced me to the finer stuff, I have a sort of traditional reverence for Scotch. I like when a whisky refers to its historical roots, that seems to make it more authentic and well-crafted somehow (irrational, I know). Example? A couple of years ago, there was the John Mark & Robbo line of, I think, vatted whiskies. To me, John, Mark & Robbo sounds like three frat boys whose collective knowledge of whisky comes down to the liter and a half of Southern Comfort they drank last night, it says nothing about the tradition I identify with. For all I know, this was great stuff, and of course I’d be willing to try it and of course I could objectively appreciate it, but honestly, I wouldn’t want that bottle on my shelf.
Silly? Subjective? Hell yes. But of course, that’s why marketing works, it cleverly strikes a nerve. I won’t mention another obvious example by name, but over the last several years, Ardbeg has done a fantastic job creating a buzz about their booze (website crashes notwithstanding). They tap into the Gaelic mythos of the island and do so with both humor and reverence. The style is traditional but also just edgy enough at the same time. That is a campaign that will satisfy aficionados and intrigue newcomers as well.
Ultimately for me and I’m sure for most whisky fans, what’s in the bottle is really all that matters. Good design and marketing might pique my interest more and move a bottle up in my buying/tasting queue, but an ugly bottle that gets a lot of bloggy, subversive, non-industry buzz is going to do the same thing for me. Interestingly enough, I think whiskymakers have done a great job in educating their audience and to their chagrin, they also know that they can’t market the hell out of a whisky if it’s no good because they’ll get called out pretty quick. In the end, I enjoy all the marketing to an extent, I give in to their wiles once in a while, but I also enjoy being fairly critical of it, which I think helps to keep me even-keeled.