The power of friends, family and celebrity — getting inside the head of a whisky drinker

The power of friends, family and celebrity — getting inside the head of a whisky drinker

More potent than its alcoholic strength is the social rapport inside every bottle of whisky. Like an unleashed genie, in private it initiates and affirms friendships and in public it brings us together, forging communities of fellowship
Chris Middleton

24 May 2021

Publication: Issue 175

Whisky is the most romanticised and mythologised of alcoholic drinks. Its public personifications are familiar archetypes portrayed in popular culture and as caricatures in advertising tropes. However, rarely do consumers rub shoulders with rebellious rock stars, Hollywood celebrities, royalty, bad bikers or fictional and historical characters like the warrior clansman or gun-slinging cowboys who make up some of the most recognisable whisky personas. Behind these media stereotypes, a more private, contemplative, even banal relationship leads adults into whisky. It is a fellowship where friends and strangers share the same interest or aim, the pleasures of whisky and its camaraderie. For whisky binds and instructs us through small gestures of hospitality and communion, as whisky serves the “oil of conversation, a philosophical wine, the ale consumed when good fellows come together” (Noah S ‘Soggy’ Sweat, Jr., The ‘Whisky Speech’ to Mississippi state legislature, 1952). But behind this feeling we all know is the complex psychology of the ‘whisky drinker’ and a whole world of influences that help this most complex of spirits draw us irresistibly towards it.

The road an individual takes to whisky drinking follows a few well-worn pathways. Once entered, it leads to a labyrinthine world of social convivialities and sensory discoveries. These paths are known to us by direct experience and have been the study of consumer researchers for decades, using empirical analysis to comprehend the network of drinker’s motivations. As whisky’s complexity became embedded in its social and historical fabric, it also manifested in the product: found in the various whisky types, regional styles, nuanced flavours, the terroir of each distillery plant and its process. Just as each of the 50 million slumbering casks held in bond store is subtly different, every drinker is slightly different. As the maturing whisky changes over time, so too the drinker. The constants that do not change are the two primary routes by which whisky is introduced into our drinking lives: those closest to us (family and friends) and popular culture. The first steps usually start close to home.

The classic five-step consumer adoption process for selecting a product, even a whisky brand, first starts with awareness, leading to interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. Whisky has been an omnipresent part of Anglo-Western culture for two centuries, ensuring plenty of opportunities for people to take those first steps of awareness and interest. As salespeople know, the critical bridge between interest and evaluation is known as ‘liquid on lips’ – i.e. when consumers taste the product, learn brand backstories and thereby imprint meaningful whisky experiences. Tasting and narrative are the two most powerful transitional persuaders, simultaneously resulting in evaluation and trial. The most potent force to convert an adult into a whisky drinker is a trusted and respected person, a family member, or a close friend. The power of one has been the customary introduction to drinking whisky through generations and forms a vital part of the adult rite of passage. Once a traditionally male-dominated habit, whisky is becoming increasingly gender-neutral in consumption reach. In the 1980s, surveys reported 25 per cent female participation; today, women rise towards 40 per cent.

From close and trusted relationships with family and friends, our social circles spread as affiliations with other groups form, and whisky fellowships come under the influence of new peer pressure at work, sport and leisure. When an influential individual or leader in a group drinks a particular brand, members often seek to emulate this behaviour. Outside the direct influence of peer groups, brands also become badges when admired leaders, celebrities and symbols in popular culture capture the public imagination and thus the desire to emulate our heroes grows, sometimes consciously and often subconsciously picking up similar mannerisms and habits. This applies as much to whisky as it does
to fashion.

Popular culture is an influential and contagious social driver once the relationship with whisky forms. The dominant social media engine, it commonly portrays whisky drinkers as attractive authority figures, opinion leaders, symbols of independence, creativity and rebelliousness that consumers look up to and seek to emulate. In Anglo markets, the most effective cultural producers to celebrate whisky are rock and roll bands and Hollywood studios. All the drama genres from westerns, police, military, science fiction to action thrillers repeatedly feature whisky as product alibis to hero characters with bravado. Cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille described in 2006 that the American culture code for alcohol, particularly whiskey, was ‘gun’. Gun symbolism has had deep meaning in America since the 1791 Second Amendment; from the Wild West to modern hip-hop, guns and whisky denote protection and danger, rebellion and violence. In America, a whisky serve is called a ‘shot’. Rapaille did not research the whisky code in the United Kingdom, leaving us to speculate what the Scotch code represents. With a colourful ensemble of British whisky archetypes, from kilted Scottish Highland warriors, unruly rock musicians to the English aristocrats, rugged to refined, they give clues to the Scotch code.

Whisky brands get cast as semiotic lifestyle props, such as signifying power and reward, in the Boston Legal and Mad Men television series. Today, the reach of social media platforms and smartphones has transformed interpersonal communications, instantaneous access to pop culture, news, and entertainment. It has also fuelled the exponential growth of online whisky communities and virtual fellowships, serving every imaginable facet and microcosm of the whisky-curious universe, showcasing the abundance in whisky choice.

Whisky has deep roots in consumer marketing, reaching back to the beginning of modern brand management. The etymology of 'brand' comes from burning a mark with a fire iron, especially on a cask or barrel head, identifying the manufacturer and place of origin. With the advent of mass-manufacturing and product marketing, whisky was one of the first industries to formulate product, packaging and imagery to arouse consumer interest and create brand differentiation at points of purchase. Labels on bottles began to distinguish manufacturers and product standards from the 1840s. Whisky is business, big business, investing many billions in plant, raw materials and marketing expenses each year. Over the past 200 years, more than 35,000 whisky brands appeared – most perished. When Western governments enacted legislation enshrining the rule that whisky was no longer medicine but an addictive drug, they enacted restrictions and prohibitions on its manufacture, sale and promotion. Despite codes constraining message content and limiting media usage, the whisky industry created some of the most entertaining and memorable work to promote brands.

Recruiting and retaining consumers to a brand is the lifeblood of business, and executives know most consumers drink labels. Following the crowd offers social safety and acceptance, which is why megabrands tend to get bigger. To maintain drinker involvement and brand awareness, large and hungry brands invest substantial marketing budgets and resources in launching new product line extensions. The line extension trend is to keep brand franchises loyal and lure consumers from competitive brands. In the US, product innovation has dramatically expanded the flavoured whiskey segment amongst younger drinkers, leaping to command 30 per cent of sales in 10 years. The most significant trend over the past decade across all international markets is the demand for premium-priced labels and expressions, promising consumers conspicuous luxury and rarity. Thanks to manufacturers and independent bottlers focusing on incremental innovation by finessing flavour compounds, notably in wood policies and laying down aged stock, they encouraged consumers to trade-up in quality, flavour and price. With more affluent consumers’ whisky, the need-state segments of discernment and status consciousness inflated, raising the category to new heights of premiumisation and pricing extremes. Premiumisation created new social cohorts and fellowships such as clubs, bloggers and online communities to share whisky appreciation, news and exchange brand information. Had the industry not invested in significant incremental innovation in product development, the lure to climb the whisky tree might not have materialised as the world grew unevenly wealthier.

By a strange coincidence, the man who formulated the first psychological hierarchy of needs was a family member of one of America’s largest cooperage firms. Abraham Maslow worked at the family-owned Pleasanton California cooperage while completing his studies. On VE day in 1945, Maslow’s Brooklyn cooperage sent the first commercial shipment of shooked (flat-packed) ex-Bourbon barrels to Scotland. It started the insatiable Scots’ demand for ex-Bourbon staves, which now dominate more than 97 per cent of first-fill barrels and the bulk of stored casks in Scotland. Inspired by the Maslow hierarchy of needs, consumer research firms forensically applied his motivational insight to whisky drinkers to gain a deeper understanding of mass psychology and behaviour. Whisky need-states segmentation explains consumer desires of when, why and how they drink whisky: to have fun, to fit in, to impress, to stand apart, and moments of relaxed intimacy. These need-states have a social basis underpinning these learned motivations. Two brands holding dual international leadership positions focused on the desire to stand apart from others, the independence need-state segment: using whisky to express individuality by implying strength and boldness.

Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel’s, between them, command nearly a fifth of the global whisky market. Another 5,000 brands fill out a long tail to complete Pareto’s 80:20 principle. Johnnie and Jack are brand leaders in their respective whisky industries: Scotch and American whiskey (Jack is charcoal-filtered Tennessee whiskey). They also share small-town, 19th-century business origins, and both sell whisky in square bottles. More importantly, both are cultural personifications of their distinct national identities. Johnnie’s personality and fame started as an adventurous English gentleman striding the world. Since the late 1990s, it has turned the drinker into the walker. The whisky continues as an allegory for life’s journey, with Johnnie Walker promoting personal progress through its whisky messages.

As blended Scotch whisky is more understated to the taste, blending light grain and malt whisky, evoking refined sensuality and worldly sophistication has also been apparent in Scotch’s historic playbook – as seen via its associations with figures such as Sean Connery’s James Bond. Meanwhile, Jack Daniel’s message speaks to independence – living life on your own terms, unpretentious, and even rebellious. Jack’s roots are in pioneering America and the small town in Tennessee where nothing seems to change. As American straight whiskey uses a different grain bill and new charred oak barrels, its liquid flavour is bolder, brasher – think along the lines of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn.
Does whisky make the man or the man make the whisky? Or, more directly, do movies imitate life or does life imitate movies? When it comes to the business of whisky, it is the whisky that makes the drinker. Marketers know it is in the mind of the consumer that the brand exists. The popularity of both brands amongst their worldwide consumer franchises has created appealing versions of cultural, social and personal independence. Whether personal progress in life or expressing the rebel within, this need-state occurs in social environments, where friendships form and self-identity is forged. There is ‘I’ in friendship and fellowship in whisky, so the need-state of independence gives both brands their telling social kudos.

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