By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Do whisky brand partnerships court more risk than reward?

In the long run, whisky brands will be judged by the company they keep
Brand partnerships are currently in vogue and have been for some time. The observant whisky enthusiast will note with bemusement that there’s something of a recurring pattern to these collaborations, as one brand’s organic and original choice of partner will be echoed months later by a direct competitor. It’s a little like watching suburban rivalry play out: one neighbour buying a brand new Mercedes just days after another drives home in a classic BMW. Some whisky brands’ activities feel similarly superficial to these peacocking displays while others are more akin to a third neighbour’s genuine love of their practical but cherished old family car.

In truth, real collaborative efforts can’t be compared to ownership as they should come from positions of mutual agency and respect. Joint efforts between brands with asymmetrical commercial power can either be blatantly exploitative or more akin to the pilot fish hitching a ride with a leviathan. Partnerships in the whisky world take many different forms and have been delivered with varying degrees of perceived authenticity. Some make clear sense, showing evidence of real shared values and teamwork between kindred spirits, whereas others are so incongruous or lacking in synergy that I wonder how the proposals made it past the first pitch.

Of course, many joint ventures are simply shallow but practical attempts to catch the attention of another product or influencer’s audience, and that’s fine. Collaborations should be mutually beneficial. After all, the social contract we all live under is based on exactly that understanding of mutual benefit. However, the best relationships – personal and professional – should truly enrich both sides and inspire others who behold them. Whether the net gain is wealth, reputation, efficiency, skill-sharing or spiritual growth depends entirely on the partners, and no association should be immediately condemned without scrutiny – be it a celebrity endorsement, spirit-supply agreement, new sales channel, tech innovation or cross-over product.

The best relationships – personal and professional – should truly enrich both sides and inspire others who behold them.

The popularity of partnerships in this politically charged age can also be seen through the more complex lens of communicating brands’ values, or, more accurately, its managers’ attempts to mirror the values of the brands’ target audiences. By choosing to partner with certain organisations, creators, celebrities, or activists, a brand can say, ‘This is what we’re about, if you’re about this too then we should be friends.’ Whether those values are shared by the teams managing the brands, or the boards and investors of the owning companies is a different matter entirely. That virtue signalling can be profitable is not lost on corporate leaders, but nor does it mean that such activities are inauthentic by default. (Thankfully, attempts at superficial grabs at cash or kudos are often painfully transparent.)

However, I fear that in their eagerness to jump (I will resist saying ‘into bed’) on the collaboration bandwagon with a new beau, some brands might not be finding out as much about their prospective partners as they should before saying ‘I do’ to the charming and chiselled Gaston. When companies are ‘courting’ one another, it’s inevitable that, just like hopeful singles packing a Tinder profile with flattering photographs, they will display only that which they want to be seen and think will be appealing. It’s possible that some whisky companies might ignore the red flags and discover too late that their new partners have been seen hanging around with unsavoury characters or haven’t been completely honest. Could those distillers find themselves guilty by association? Nobody wants to miss out on a commercial coup or the next big thing, but some might do well to remember that many will form lasting opinions by appraising the company whisky brands keep, whether that appraisal is fair and informed or not.

In the same vein, I wonder if, once the allure of the honeymoon period has worn off, many brand owners will be unwilling to put in the work to make their partnerships last. I hope that some will make the effort and mutually flourish as a result, enriching the world of whisky as they do so.