People

The name game

A spate of whiskies with strange names suggest whisky is moving forward in marketing terms. Is this a good thing? We asked a select panel of experts
By Dominic Roskrow
The panel
JG : John Glaser : Compass Box
MR : Mark Reynier : Bruichladdich
DR : Dave Robertson : Easy Drinking Whisky Company Q. In your view does the traditional whisky bottle label with age statement etc put some people off the product?JG: I think the traditional image that some people have about Scotch whisky is that it’s a connoisseur product or an old fashioned product that’s “not for me”. I don’t think that a traditional label is per se a bad thing. But I do think that Scotch whisky is different from other spirits categories in that there has been less adventurousness in the design of most of the labels and packaging.DR:Yes, definitely. The pomp and circumstance and right of passage on age risks tying whisky to the old world wine values of France. If you are in the club and can decode what is said then great... If not then it is a tough call and a risky purchase to buy something with a strange name, big age statement and (normally) very little indication of flavour.MR: Or put another way – it may not actively attract them. My hunch is that the single malt consumer is more sophisticated and mature than the industry cares to think.We are not dealing with kids (vodka) nor wing commanders (blended whisky) but a larger sector some of whom are traditionalists and others, increasingly, are more enlightened – and for whom the boring, standard approach may not work.Look at what’s happened with wine labelling over the past decade to see how this has been completely modernised.Q. Is there a particular problem for young people and women identifying with the traditional image of whisky?MR: Unfortunately there is but one image and it is rather clichéd.But it is not a simple question of only ‘young people and women’. How about wine drinkers? Bruichladdich is (and always will be) a more sophisticated, cerebral whisky.Folk that understand that – what ever their colour, age, creed, or sex – that’s our ideal consumer.DR:Yes. Most current packs are brown, green, black, gold, and are successful at appealing to the older male but less so for the under 35s and particularly women.We have found to our absolute delight that women are drawn to the creative nature and bold colours in our packs and the cartoon/caricature style of our imagery. Q. Can a modern package and name overcome that problem?JG: It’s not just about modern package design. It’s also about the product itself.There are opportunities to make styles of Scotch whisky that are more in line with the tastes of today, while still appealing to and often surprising the tastes of people who are already committed Scotch whisky drinkers.That’s what the Compass Box ‘house style’ is all about.Yes, if someone sees a whisky brand for the first time without any prior knowledge of the brand, packaging is important because it is the first thing that tells them what to expect. And yes, a fresh approach, a contemporary appraoch, as you say, can indeed get people to reconsider their preconceptions about a product. But a lot of these preconceptions about Scotch whisky being really traditional and difficult are so deeply held that packaging alone cannot change them.You need to give people a rational reason to change their perceptions. And if you can get them to try a new whisky, and it defies their taste expectations and they actually really like it, or if you can show them convincingly that whisky can be enjoyed in new ways, then you stand a chance of getting people to change their deeply held perceptions.MR: It cannot hurt. Surely it is what is in the bottle that counts? Jim McEwan has designed three totally different versions of Bruichladdich – Infinity, 3D and Rocks – ancillary to our ‘normal’ mood cuvées, with specific people in mind. The packaging reflects this inspiration and is deliberately different. Apink lycra, diamante box may just be a tad too much – even for us.Q. Can modern packaging/unusual names become gimmicky and ultimately detrimental to a brand?DR: Depends on how far you push the envelope and whether the consumer believes they are duped – on flavour, on pack, on promise. In the huge whisky landscape there must be room for novel approaches like -6ºC, Monkey Shoulder, JMR and Compass Box. All we are doing is adding more choice to a fairly constrained category.Many consumer categories have moved on from being ultra traditional – just look at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, how about some of the crazy beer brands, ale in the UK and especially so in the fab world of micro brew in the United States. Wine has already moved and I think we will see some movement in premium vodka as consumers become tired of premium, ultra premium and uber premium there will be a backlash and a move to more rustic, organic, simpler and more wholesome styles and packs.MR: If the product is devoid of integrity, of course yes. There will be folk who will say anything new is gimmicky – until they do it themselves. Bruichladdich has humble horizons – quietly bumbling along doing our own thing.We do not have some great marketing plan – we do not even have a marketing department – we always just try to do the best we can.The consumer, so long exploited by cynical marketing and romantic imagery to sell whisky, deserves more. If they want blandola conformity – then Bruichladdich is not for them; there are plenty of brands that offer that safety.Q. Do you think it is likely that more companies will follow the route of Compass Box/Easy Drinking Whisky Co/Monkey Shoulder in the future?MR:After the usual period of shock/horror, yes you can bet your bottom dollar while folk huff and puff, marketing departments throughout the land will be frantically ‘pioneering’ their own similar concepts which will be launched with huge fan fairs and loads of money sometime about next September.JG:Without doubt. Now that people have seen what we’ve done and that after five years we’re still here and haven’t been struck by lightning or anything, and that our whiskies keep getting great reviews and our sales continue to grow, I think the door is finally open in the industry to bring more personality to brands and small companies. And all of this (if done in a sincere way with high quality products – will serve to make Scotch whisky more interesting, more surprising, more fun, and more compelling to more people.DR:Absolutely, as the big guys wake up to the fact that a single malt brand will (if it is not already) become stock constrained, the clever marketers will need to seek new ways of driving growth.One way of doing this is to look at the value of malt but spin it a different way that frees you from the shackles of single malt but retains the inherent value of malt allowing to command a fair price for a fair product.Diageo will not let Johnnie Walker Green fail, Grants with Monkey Shoulder is dabbling at the edges, Compass Box has brought clever blending skills, great taste and cool packaging to the market and we have taken an alternative view and gone for hand crafted, recycled, additive free, natural products focused on flavour, fun and friendship.As the three of us, Jon, Mark and myself, at JMR believe “To victory with vatted!”