Ballantine’s is the third largest whisky brand in the world. But Jim Dwyer, Allied Domecq’s man in Russia since pre-Glasnost days, was understandably sceptical when he heard his company’s latest plan to sell more of its Scotch whisky. “I didn’t think it was possible. I thought it sounded ludicrous.”
A manic British dance band The Prodigy was coming to play a free concert just a crush barrier away from the Kremlin – and Allied Domecq was going to sponsor the whole thing.
If nightmare scenarios of an audience stampede or dread of some rough stuff from the local police were giving Dwyer sleepless nights, the atmosphere among his Russian team was one of excitement. “There was pandemonium in our office when we heard the event was being brought to Moscow,” says Dwyer. “This type of thing doesn’t happen often in Russia. That level of stardom is still unique.”
The decision to promote the event in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square set in motion a tortuous process to gain permission from the Mayor of Moscow and ten government officials within the Kremlin. And raised the problem of effective crowd control in a city where there is no love lost between the young people and the local police.
But what is the connection between whisky marketing and a free open-air concert expected to attract a quarter of a million people to dance on the edge of Red Square to a shouting, swearing singer dressed in a skirt?
Richard Gowar, Allied Domecq’s international marketing director for Ballantine’s Finest, took the bold decision to bring The Prodigy to Moscow several months ago. For the past two years he has worked with music sponsorship agency KLP to break the mould of traditional whisky marketing, and build Ballantine’s as a credible drink for a new generation of consumers.
But the sponsorship of The Prodigy’s European tour is not the whole story. Together Gowar’s team and KLP have created a concept called the Urban High, a city centre event that combines freestyle snowboarding on a specially constructed ramp during the day, music from bands headlined by The Prodigy, and finally dance music provided by DJs from top UK dance club Cream in a huge tent-like structure called the Orbit.
There were Urban Highs in the heart of Berlin, Prague and Milan last year, and this year the concept will travel to Valencia and Paris. But none has the same intriguing possibilities as Moscow – once home to communism but more recently associated with gangsterism, economic collapse and political crisis.
On the night of the Moscow Urban High, an estimated 250,000 people surged into Manezhnaya Square within earshot of Red Square and Lenin’s tomb. By 6.30pm one of the city’s main roads and the Metro had to be closed to stop any more bodies packing into the limited space.
The sight of many of the younger fans wrapped in Prodigy scarves and with the band’s name painted on their cheeks added to the sense of youthful rebellion in a crowd being constantly watched by stony-faced police, who hauled anyone they saw as a troublemaker over the crush barriers.
At 10.30pm a curfew in the area around Red Square brought the event to an end. But for Dwyer, who has lived in Russia for the past nine years and originally learned the language flying reconnaissance planes for the US military, such an event would have been unthinkable even five years ago.
As managing director of Allied Domecq in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), he says the Urban High’s biggest achievement is to raise spontaneous awareness of Ballantine’s. But in a country where a whisky and coke might cost between $6 (3.70) and $10 (6.20) – which could pay for a whole meal – that is of limited use.
Nevertheless, there are many professional people in Russia and particularly in the big cities such as Moscow working for Western companies or for businesses with Western clients who aspire to Western brands and are a ripe target market.
Allied Domecq wants to use the Urban Highs to increase awareness not only in emerging markets such as Russia, where brown spirits are drunk by a very small proportion of the population, but also to build interest among young adults in existing mature markets such as France, Germany and Spain where core consumers are 35-years-old and over.
Gowar says: “This category [whisky] is not littered with examples of great marketing. In the past we have not refuelled growth from a younger end, unlike Guinness and Lucozade which have managed it very successfully.
“It’s not because young people are being switched off spirits. White spirits and bourbon are being marketed for younger people. It’s not impossible.”
If Gowar is using the Urban High events to hammer away at entrenched views about whisky in continental Europe, it is clear that there are also frustrations surrounding perceptions of Ballantine’s Finest closer to home.
The brand is Allied Domecq’s biggest and the third largest Scotch brand worldwide, but it is not sold in the UK, where understanding of its size and importance to Allied Domecq’s global business is limited.
Gowar adds: “You have to im-press upon people both internally and externally how big Ballantine’s is. There are problems of perception.” But he denies that Allied Domecq has ambitions to launch Ballantine’s in the UK – despite the fact it has offered to sponsor Cream’s fifth birthday party in the club’s Liverpool home.
He says it would take too much investment to break into the mature UK whisky market.
By contrast, in Western European countries, where Ballantine’s is already well-established, the overriding need is to build a younger consumer base without losing existing drinkers. As part of this strategy, Allied Domecq started its association with snowboarding four years ago when it became the first major commercial tour sponsor of the 1993/94 World Pro Tour.
The seeds of the Urban High concept were sown, as Ballantine’s took its brand into Europe’s ski resorts and associated itself with a modern, risky sport and its accompanying lifestyle. Other key elements have gradually been added – music sponsorship, skateboarding, BMX biking, and the partnership with Cream.
This day and night of continuous events has now been taken from the mountain side and moved into city centres, giving the Ballantine’s brand exposure to many more people and providing such dramatic backdrops as The Brandenberg Gate in Berlin.
Gowar says that the Urban Highs are a reaction to the fact that traditional approaches to spirits marketing are no longer valid. Advertising is often an ineffective way of communicating to increasingly media literate young adults. In one example market, which Allied Domecq refuses to identify, the company says it spent 2.5m on a TV ad and achieved a miserable uplift in awareness. “We would have been better putting the money into the building society,” says Gowar dryly.
In contrast the company says it invested 1.5m in the Urban High concept last year, and claims to have gained 9m in related media exposure from MTV and European TV and press coverage. It says the event is a strong marketing vehicle for other markets to exploit, for example through promotional material, which extends the event’s “shelf life”.
There is no overt hard sell at the Urban Highs, with no sampling or sales of T-shirts, for fear it would destroy the brand’s image among young consumers. This self-enforced restraint creates problems in a relatively new market such as Russia, where many people do not even know what the brand is. Posters for the concert carried a picture of the Ballantine’s whisky bottle, just to make it clear.
Gowar says the Urban Highs are already reaping rewards with significant volume improvements. A new European press ad campaign through Publicis will reinforce this, and TV ads are also being considered now brand awareness has reached certain levels.
Gowar himself has been rewarded for his work on Ballantine’s, by being promoted at the age of 37, to head of Allied Domecq’s international brand group in Europe (MW September 18).
For Dwyer there is a mixture of amazement and relief at what has just happened. “This could never have happened five years ago. It aroused huge curiosity – I even saw four pensioners in the front row.” He should not be so surprised – after all it is pensioners who are often seen as the target market for whisky. Ironically, that is exactly what the Urban High hopes to change.