Johnnie Walker on the insight powering its 20-year old slogan

Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker is thriving thanks to a combination of sustained investment, a switch to localised marketing post-pandemic and rich insight ensuring its long-term ‘Keep Walking’ platform remains relevant to consumers.

To create a future for a brand the business needs to be prepared to invest, according to Johnnie Walker global brand director Julie Bramham.

Working for a brand with a history dating back to 1820, Bramham believes the businesses which continue to invest are the ones in a position of long-term strength. Having a deep understanding of the data helps, as does having access to parent company Diageo’s marketing effectiveness tool, Catalyst.

“Our Catalyst tool allows us to measure effectiveness and we’re lucky we’ve got a decent data set up that helps us to understand the return on investment. So conversations with finance are easier to come by when you have the data that supports why investing is the right thing to do,” she explains.

“Diageo starts from a position of being a brand-building company and therefore we start from a fundamental belief in the need to invest to keep these giant 200-year-old brands going. To create futures for them requires investment.”

This strategy is paying off. Johnnie Walker broke into the top 10 of Kantar BrandZ’s Most Valuable UK Brands 2021 ranking, coming in at ninth with an estimated value of $8.3bn (£6bn). The whisky brand is in good company, in a list topped by Vodafone ($30.9bn), HSBC ($15.6bn) and Shell ($15.4bn), and is worth more than Unilever’s Dove ($7.3bn) in tenth position.

Bramham puts much of Johnnie Walker’s success down to the consistency of its messaging. The Scotch whisky brand has been running the same platform – ‘Keep Walking’ – since 1999. Consumer insight at the time found people wanted to be inspired, which is something the team set out to do.

We absolutely have got a trademark that allows premiumisation, like no other in whisky.

Julie Bramham, Johnnie Walker

“The consumer insight was the powerful piece for us [at the time], which made this brand all about personal progress. At the time we wanted to inspire personal progress, which is an enduring human truth, this idea of the progress of people wanting to move forward,” she explains.

Since then the idea of Keep Walking has progressed from a message of individual excellence to one about collective achievements, which has resonated with modern customers. Insight found consumers would respond better to more inclusive messaging.

“The brand shouldn’t only be about personal progress anymore. We’re going to be more about collective progress. We want to talk to people and talk about people who are creating progress for all, not just for them as individuals,” says Bramham.

“We also see a chance here to bring a good level of optimism and energy as the world starts to reopen after a very difficult time for everybody.”

Local focus

This message appears to be resonating across all the markets Johnnie Walker operates in, with the brand platform “shifting” from being a singular global positioning to include more local messaging.

“Since the insight has evolved we have found a way of operating globally and locally, which is the main shift. Ultimately, at the centre of it is an enduring brand idea about progress, which is relevant now,” Bramham explains.

The pandemic is still raging across the world and this has put all economies globally in different situations, highlighting the need for activations based on local insight, rather than just “one global piece of work”.

“We’re marketed in 190 different countries, so everyone is in a different and difficult situation. But we’ve still got a real chance to bring this brand idea global by creating local chapters of it, which allow us to be more nimble and agile with local insights,” she says.

“For example, in Thailand, the on-trade has been closed or severely restricted for a number of months. As that starts to reopen, we’ve got a specific execution, which is about reclaiming the streets in Thailand.”

Diageo ups marketing spend as confidence in effectiveness soarsBramham notes it was “easier” in 1999 when the media landscape was focused on film, TV and print/out-of-home.

“When we launched back in 1999 the media landscape was actually remarkably simple. We created a suite of work, including with actor Harvey Keitel. We also created some film work with people about their journey of progress. We used lots of different ways to talk about progress,” Bramham recalls.

The latest progression of the brand’s marketing strategy is the decision to pump £185m into experience via Johnnie Walker Princes Street, an eight-floor vistor attraction located in Edinburgh. Opened in September, the attraction features shops, a whisky cellar and two rooftop bars.

The aim of Johnnie Walker Princes Street is to broaden the appeal of Scotch whisky to all demographics, with visitor experiences becoming “an important part of the marketing mix”.

In addition, Johnnie Walker will be investing to upgrade its distilleries across Scotland, which also attract visitors.

“We’re investing over £200m in Scotland to really bring to life the magic and the art of Scotch whisky,” says Bramham. “What we are doing is investing significantly in all of our distilleries in Scotland and modernising visitor experiences that feed into the Johnnie Walker brand.”

Elevating the brand by having consumers touch and taste it will be vital in Diageo’s premiumisation strategy. The beverage giant has long claimed that people are drinking less, but drinking better – particularly younger people – which suits premium brands such as Johnnie Walker. The whiskies in its portfolio range from £20 to £20,000.

“We’re seeing people premiumise more. We absolutely appeal to people who want to drink a better whisky on fewer occasions,” Bramham adds. “And we absolutely have got a trademark that allows premiumisation, like no other in whisky.”