Bacardi’s UK offices are easily missed, a discreet plaque on the wall outside a building next to London’s Marylebone station. You’d think that the world’s biggest rum would have something, well, flashier, but on reflection it seems to suit the firm’s whisky brand Dewar’s, the major blend that people forgot.
I’m here to meet with its senior category director (i.e. the boss man), Iain Kennedy, who, like his brand, like the surroundings is soft spoken, quiet, understated – apart from his taste in shirts.
Once in his office, him behind his large black desk, framed quote from Tommy Dewar, the legendary whisky baron who built the brand into a global force, on the wall I suggest that Dewar’s is the George Harrison of the blended world. It sells 3.4million cases a year, but is the brand people seem to overlook.
He smiles ruefully. “For the brand with the most flamboyant history, it’s a bit strange that it’s been quiet for such a long time.”
But why has it been so quiet?
“Maybe it’s because when it was in UD (Dewar’s was sold to Bacardi when UD merged with IDV to become Diageo) it was No.2 to Johnnie Walker and since it’s been with Bacardi it’s ploughed its own furrow. I think it has always had enough around it to do a reasonable job and that’s the worst of all worlds. I think it’s been stuck in average land for a very long time.”
That’s a startling admission for a brand owner to make. What exactly do you mean by ‘average’?
“I mean, it’s just...” he searches for the word, “...fine.” Makes a face. “It hasn’t offended anybody, but it hasn’t necessarily attracted anyone either, it’s just... been there. Nobody’s been disappointed by its performance, but it’s hardly sparkled and that, for me, is not good enough. If Tommy (Dewar) was around he’d be beating the hell out of me.
“I don’t think it’s really stood for something since Tommy’s flamboyant days, so, what we’ve been doing here is quietly (there’s that word again) rebuilding it and trying to find the flair and flamboyance it once had.”
He can bring some experience to bear. Prior to his Bacardi appointment, Kennedy was in senior positions at both J&B and Johnnie Walker, working in the category when things weren’t quite as sparkling as they are now.
Does that give you a different perspective?
“There is nothing more daunting than taking on a well-running machine, because you’re only going to cock it up or, if you make it better, you can only do so by one or two per cent. Taking something that isn’t flying and making it fly is fantastic and exciting. That is why I do what I do.”
Because otherwise you would be an administrator?
“That’s precisely what’s happened to Dewar’s. It was administered. Very well administered, but that’s not good enough. We want it to be brilliant. I’ve been lucky enough to have some big problems to work on and that is what I get excited by.
“I’m an engineer’s son, so I maybe that’s where it comes from: let’s see how it works, strip it down and get it working again.”
But in the meantime your big rivals are moving ahead. In the last year, Walker’s put on one million cases, Chivas 200,000. Are the windows of opportunity closing?
“I always think there is opportunity, either because there are places where you can take your business to that other people can’t, or brands get stuck in ruts and the world moves on. I think the consumer is changing, I think the market for Scotch is moving and there are some brands stuck in traps.
“There are opportunities because consumers, bless ‘em, never do exactly what you intend them to do because they have free choice. That means variety is important to them, so there is always room. I don’t feel constrained by the competition.”
So, where is Dewar’s now playing? He admits the brand was late into China, though that is being remedied; sales are growing in Russia, there’s bridgeheads being made in India. How though can you differentiate yourself from your rivals but also establish yourself as a brand in markets which often don’t even know what whisky is?
“Packaging (Dewar’s has recently had a radical revamp) is one aspect, but you have to show people that you taste different. I think we’re in position to offer consumers a much stronger alternative (to Walker and Chivas), both of whom represent a particular view on success.”
“Walker talks of progress and Chivas about chivalry, but I think increasingly they are out of step with the way consumers feel about the world. As brands they are very judgmental in their approach and are almost telling you how to behave.
“Sometimes I look at whisky advertising and I feel I am somehow unworthy and I don’t want to feel like that. I want to feel great because I am buying the best category on the world, the pinnacle of the drinking occasion, so Dewar’s has been very clear to tell a story that allows consumers not to feel that way and just enjoy Scotch for what it is: a brilliant human product.”
But surely blends’ current success is because they are aspirational – that people drink them because they reflect their success and status?
“Yes but it is your success as a consumer, not mine as a brand owner. It’s not my role to tell you how your success should be.”
Because Scotch should be inclusive?
“Scotch should be expansive. Victorian Scotland was incredibly expansive. We gave the world everything.”
He pauses, leans back and smiles. “Have I told you my theory of evolution? Darwin was slightly wrong.
“The main driver of evolution was distillation. Animals find fermented fruit and get intoxicated by eating it, so what separates us from the animals is our ability to distil.” Right enough, I’ve never seen a monkey distil.
“I rest my case! Now, what marked out a further higher level of evolution was the ability to wait, have patience and mature your product, which is why the Scots were the right people to master the art of whisky!” he laughs. “The Scots are very intellectual and very patient.”
Does being a Scot make a difference?
“I think it gives you licence to be a little bit bolder. I love doing this job because I am Scottish.”
But can Scotland get in the way with the more negative aspects of tradition dragging it down?
“It’s madness to say Scotland doesn’t matter, but I do think sometimes that whisky is too rule-oriented. You look at these rules about how you ‘should’ drink it and then see the advertising and think ‘should I really be drinking this stuff?’
“We should be embracing people who are drinking our product no matter how they choose to do so.”
So you’re kicking against that small ‘c’ Scottish conservatism?
“I think so. I always have. I remember as a young man my uncle almost having me burnt at the stake for witchcraft when I added water to my whisky. Sadly that attitude has marginalised the product in (the UK). It’s not a believable proposition.”
Can it be?
“You’re talking to an optimist and an idealist, so yes.”
Well then, as an idealist where do you see not just blended Scotch but Dewar’s in the next few years?
“We’re going to win.”
What game are you in then?
“I’m in the market share game. I am going to be growing market share and where I chose to fight I am going to win. In my head I’ve already won a couple of key things, but we need to do more because, as you rightly say, we have been quiet.”
So what have you won?
“That would be telling! I think that would be giving too much away.”
But you are in a better place now than two years ago?
“Totally. We are finding our swagger again, that flair and flamboyance and energy and belief. Tommy wouldn’t be happy with average and we aren’t either. When I came here, Dewar’s needed a little more fire in its belly and I think it is getting that.”
You seem a very quiet man to do that.
“Well, I am quiet.” There’s a long pause. “I’m definitely not the showman that Tommy was, but I am can see the big picture and I’m tenacious as hell. I don’t give up and I don’t lose either because I am such an idealist.”
It strikes me that our conversation seems to have been shadowed by Tommy’s ghost. Has he risen from the grave?
“I think it’s the opposite. It’s not about Tommy, its about the person who chooses to drink our product, so I have slightly erased Tommy as a character, but brought out what he stood for.”
So we won’t see you dressed in velvet breeches? “Er..no. Nor am I going to grow a large bushy moustache, but what he stood for is where the lessons are.”
Do you feel him looking over your shoulder, saying this is my brand?
“I do turn around and ask him questions, all the time. I want him to be proud of what we have done with his business and him to approve of the work we have done and the difference we have made.”
So that conservatism we mentioned earlier - that’s what has held Dewar’s back?
“I’d say cautious more than conservative. We have a winning recipe, but there is a lot more to come from innovation than we are currently seeing.
“Part of that is a brand owners’ issue and part is consumers not opening their eyes to the opportunities out there.”
He stops, there’s a quiet smile. “I would like to be the opposite of conservative. Where is the fun with going with the flow?”
But that’s what big brands do – or maybe have to do – and you are a big brand.
“No. I’m the little guy. I’m David against the Goliaths. That’s how I need to think.”
I think back to his theory of evolution and how it revolves around patience, about how for all his quiet tone there is a steeliness behind his words, but never an arrogance. The quiet man with his quiet brand is beginning to make a noise.