How to inspire consumers to reconnect with a brand at risk of being crowded out of the public imagination? Let’s explore how Johnnie Walker created a flagship experience to let visitors and locals get back in touch with Scotch Whisky.
Johnnie Walker Was Losing Share of Voice
In Summer 2017, I was invited to London with a group of Diageo global marketing leaders to problem solve for Johnnie Walker, by far the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky and responsible for about 15% of Diageo’s total sales. Scotch whisky was losing share of voice to American, Irish, and Japanese whiskies, which seemed to get more enthusiastic media coverage, bartender love, and better consumer engagement. Johnnie Walker sets the tone for the entire Scotch whisky category globally. But four years ago, its Striding Man brand icon with his confident invitation to “Come Walk With Us” was not resonating enough. Distributed in over 180 countries and found on retail shelves and bars far and wide, it was a brand more seen than heard.
As part of the workshop, some groups were asked to elevate marketing comms and innovation. My working group created this challenge: How to make Johnnie Walker more meaningful and emotive to the end consumer? Could we create a flagship experience for the brand and sense of place in Scotland (an alarmingly high percentage of Scots mistakenly thought it was an American brand)? Oh, and Johnnie Walker’s 200th anniversary was only three years away. Could we make sure whatever we did was ready by 2020?
Differentiating with Personalisation at Scale
By April 2018 we had approval for £185M of CAPEX funding and I started to build an internal team of retail, operations, consumer experience, finance, technology, and design experts. Our charge: create one-of-a-kind whisky experiences across Scotland, headlined by a global brand flagship experience for Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh, later named Johnnie Walker Princes Street. Externally, we partnered with BRC Imagination Arts, an experiential design agency with roots in Disney.
We drew inspiration and learnings from our own Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s most visited attraction with 1.8M guests per annum. But compared to beer, Scotch whisky is complicated, often misunderstood, and even intimidating to some. Plus, we needed to differentiate this experience from a crowded whisky tourism field. The last thing Scotland needed was another one-size-fits-all whisky production tour. So we presented BRC with a unique set of challenges: Can we create a flagship experience that accommodates a lot of people, while also customising and personalising that experience for every guest? Can we do it in a way that is 100% authentic, meeting people wherever they are in their whisky journey? Can it attract both locals and tourists, while appealing to everyone from the curious to the connoisseur?
Human Connection + Storytelling + Technology
When Johnnie Walker Princes Street opened its doors to the public on 6 September 2021 to great fanfare in Scotland and virtual celebrations around the world, I could not have been more impressed with the accomplishments of the team. The whole experience was so meaningful and emotional, particularly since I had led the project from Amsterdam via Zoom for the last 18 months, unable to travel to Scotland since March 2020.
Johnnie Walker Princes Street is now mile marker zero for Scotch whisky, placing us alongside the likes of Guinness and Coca Cola in terms of having the most loved and most talked about brand flagship experiences. Our guests have the shared experience of seeing stories brought to life but their actual liquid-to-lips moment is very different. By using AI, we give people a better chance of having a special moment with whisky. Each individual visitor is served whisky drinks tailored to their personal taste, while activating all their senses. Guests who know what they want can still choose their favourite drink, but they also explore new tastes based upon their personal flavour profile. All of this is delivered by master storytellers and performance artists. By using cutting-edge drink dispense systems, we foster guest participation and improve operations, while saving over 40,000 bottles a year. We did it first and foremost through people-led experiences – stories about people and flavour creation told by people – aided by mobile, AI, AR, multi-media, and theatrical technology.
In the end, BRC designed an emotive, immersive, inclusive, and innovative flagship experience like no other. It is hard to put into words the incredible complexity. Through shared vision and aligned purpose, we balanced the push/pull of achieving commercial returns, serving the brand objectives, overcoming site/community challenges, and creating a truly unique visitor proposition. Over the sometimes challenging four-year journey, I had to build belief and sustain engagement with 200+ team members and the all-important executive sponsors. We collectively created a one-of-a-kind flagship experience that is also an omni-channel commerce hub managed on a discrete P&L and delivering a clear ROI.
Surprise and Delight
From a recent visitor:
“I cannot recommend this place enough. I went in not knowing much about whisky or even really liking it. Despite that this tour taught me loads and let me experience whisky in a whole new way. Not only that the building you travel through is superb. You’ll experience projections, lighting effects, incredible music and sound effects, staging and performance honestly at a higher standard than most other attractions anywhere in the UK. I’d seriously challenge you to find a better value way to spend your afternoon in the city and just for the technology, performance and beauty of the space it’s worth it – let alone the whisky!”
The Future of Brand Is Experience
In today’s consumer-centric realm of online marketplaces and limitless choice, how can a CPG brand grab attention? Physical retail flagships and brand destinations are manifestations of a brand; places for storytelling and human connection that shape what we want people to think, feel or do. They are also showrooms, strategic marketing assets, innovation centres, consumer data banks, and omni-channel commerce hubs. Physical spaces may never claim a large distribution share for brands like Johnnie Walker, but it remains hard to create emotional engagement or achieve advocacy online or solely through 3rd parties.
Post-Covid consumer behaviour is still evolving, but after months of lockdowns people are craving human interaction and in-person experiences more than ever. Flagship experiences like Johnnie Walker Princes Street are time well spent. Much of the power of these physical spaces comes from length of engagement. Visitors spend an hour or more with us, paying for the opportunity to give us their time. Johnnie Walker Princes Street embodies the trend of consumers increasingly seeking memorable experiences and sharing those experiences with others (UGC!). The best ones are invaluable brand assets that build engagement, create transformation, and support profitable growth.
Post Feature Photo: A multi-sensory room from the signature Journey of Flavour tour experience (Diageo)
About the Author:
Greg is a D2C retail and consumer sector expert who has spent over 20 years leading omni-channel, experiential marketing, and operational transformations for major brands including Johnnie Walker, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and The Home Depot. Having spent the first 18 of his legal drinking age years in the American Southeast, he practically grew up on Kentucky bourbon. He now proudly considers himself a Scotch whisky convert. Read his work here and connect with him on LinkedIn.