For an industry that prides itself so much on tradition, it’s ironic that whisky should have so whole-heartedly embraced the personification of modernity – the internet.But the fact is, nowadays, the web and whisky are bosom buddies and the industry without the internet would be a body devoid of an arm or a leg – and a money making arm or leg at that.Online sales of whisky are burgeoning with sites such as www.smws.com, run by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, seeing figures rocket by an amazing 800 per cent in the last six months.Also, companies both large and small are realising how important the web is in building fan bases worldwide. “Half of all our new customers come through our website,” says Richard Joynson, proprietor of Loch Fyne Whiskies (www.lfw.co.uk).The first generation of whisky web sites appeared in the mid 90s but now second- and third-generation versions are being launched.Big money is being ploughed into them with brands such as Johnnie Walker, Glenfiddich and The Famous Grouse putting anything upwards of £300,000 into online brand development.But which retail and whisky sites are hitting the mark? Is it right to go for sober practicality in your whisky site’s design or stick some glitz in there?Glenfiddich launched its second-generation site (www.glenfiddich.com) at the end of 2001. The existing web presence was difficult to navigate and text-heavy according to user feedback, says the company. As a result a ‘three-click principle’ is in effect on the latest site, so you’re never more than three clicks away from where you want to be.Designers added the obligatory section on the producer’s production process, and an online valuation service where owners can get rare expressions appraised. A further service has also been included making it possible to customise the labelling of your favourite expression.In total, it all added up to Glenfiddich’s urge to get closer to its devotees and offer a more personalised service. “There’s an emotional attachment to our brand and the web site gives us the opportunity to communicate with customers directly,” says Andrew Nash, International Brand Manager of Glenfiddich.There is definitely a no-nonsense feel to the site, which can translate as coldness toward the user, an almost cyber-‘get ’em in, get ’em out’ ethos. Sure, the internet can deliver information quicker than ever before, but many people like sites that draw them in and give them a reason to stick around. That said, there are some nice touches in there, like film clips of the distillery in action.Unfortunately it shares these similarities with a site that represents a step forward in the malt industry online: Malts.com, launched, like Glenfiddich’s site, at the end of last year.It was created by Guinness UDV GB as a single online retail outlet for its 27 malt distilleries, of which 17 currently offer their expressions through the site. Like Glenfiddich’s site, it falls short of breaking new ground on web design with the homepage’s functional, non-sexy layout indicative of Malts.com in general. This approach would be understandable if we were talking about the large number of relatively small malt whisky distilleries out there who have created websites on smaller development budgets.It’s forgivable in a way that when you look at a large number of distillery homepages they begin to look the same. There are exceptions – one of which is for Morrison Bowmore Distillers (www.morrisonbowmore.com), which uses Flash technology to create a dynamic, easy-on-the-eye site.There is an argument, of course, that malt distilleries, regardless of their budgets, cater for an audience whose average age means they would rather forsake anything unusual in favour of practicality. Understandable perhaps, certainly debatable, but a site needs to stamp its personality firmly on the eyeballs of visitors to build loyalty. And, hey, if the visitor has taken the trouble to visit your site out of all the trillions out there, shouldn’t the company trying to build and establish a brand offer more than a cursory insight into your history and then direct them straight to your online shop?Malt whisky aficionados are deeply passionate about the drink, so couldn’t web sites share and build on this?
Because of its design, Malts.com comes across much like an online whisky retailer such as The Whisky Shop (www.
whiskyshop.com) – but The Whisky Shop’s design reflects that the site does ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ and steers clear of holding up visitors with Flash technology on the way to the till. It obviously works too, as sales are booming up to 40 per cent year on year.Malts.com, however, wants to be seen as a one-stop-shop for connoisseurs both buying and sharing a love of malt whisky.
Two sites in sharp contrast to Malts.com that have embraced Flash technology are J&B Rare (www.jbrare.com) and Johnnie Walker (www.johnniewalker.com).Johnnie Walker has 12 country-specific sites stretching from the USA to Russia. Someone ignorant of the brand would realise instantly from visiting the sites that Johnnie Walker means different things in different countries. Each site mirrors this divergence. Visitors to the Australian site get a functional layout similar to the Glenfiddich and Malts.com sites, while visitors to the Mexican site get images that shift and change colour as you move the cursor around the page.Then you visit J&B Rare and it’s like stepping into the Top of the Pops studio as Robbie Williams hits the stage. There’s no sound but you get a feeling of dizziness akin to being spun around on a dancefloor. Stars of pop music and the silver screen seem ever-present on the site and J&B Rare is not shy in pushing the promotional events it hosts that attract the glitterati.There’s games galore for visitors to play, plus a message board, which appears to be popular with fans. It even lists bars stocking the brand in major cities of the world.Neither site goes in for a section on the finer points of its production but then, how a blend is produced is not really a key
selling point. They don’t have online shops either, because they’re so well distributed worldwide there’s no reason for people to order a bottle online and pay a delivery fee when they can go to a local store and get it. Instead, sites such as these focus on the spirit and personality of the people who enjoy their whiskies.While Glenfiddich and Malts.com are aiming at different audiences to Johnnie Walker or J&B Rare, a serious point is raised by these two distinct styles: whisky drinkers have been polarized. Okay, so generally malts and blends appeal to two different groups but should this so distinctively manifest itself in the style of the websites? There is a danger.“Sometimes it’s as though you’re looking at the same bottle of whisky on all the different sites,” says Jason Craig, Direct Marketing and Internet Manager of Highland Distillers, whose Famous Grouse brand unveiled a new-look website that has done as much, if not more, than any other site of making the most of its name.Designers created a site that turned the grouse in its name and emblem into a movie star. In the same way devotees of singer and actress Cher can visit her website and hear her latest single, fans of the bird can go to The Famous Grouse site and see the brand’s adverts, where the bird is the central character.In addition, they can also get Grouse emblazoned merchandise and download The Famous Grouse campaign signature tune as a mobile phone ringtone. We see here how whisky sites are taking different routes in development: some are more information-led and while some favour entertainment.Some sites may well decamp from their current positions and shift the focus of their sites, if only slightly. The point is, it’s still early days for whisky on the web.“I’d say only one per cent of a whisky brand’s sales will be from the internet,” says James Hardie, Director of web agency Dowcarter, which has created sites for a number of whisky brands. “However, everyone in the industry sees it as a channel that’s going to grow and become increasingly important.“There are plenty of lessons to learn at the moment about how the web will best work for whisky in the future.”