Johnnie Walker: Brand Profile

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Johnnie Walker is the world's best-selling whisky, and the #3 premium spirit overall by volumes. However its high price makes it the top-seller globally by revenues, worth an estimated $5.2bn at retail in 2015, according to Impact Databank. That's almost 50% more than second-placed Smirnoff vodka. Its greatest strength is an extensive worldwide profile, unmatched by any of its competitors. Sold in more than 200 countries, Johnnie Walker doesn't lead the whisky sector in any of the key spirits markets, but is a major player in all of them. It is especially strong in Asia, an important whisky market, where it is Diageo's biggest brand. 

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Recent stories from Adbrands Weekly Update:

Adbrands Social Media 24th May 2018: "110 Years". Cute animation in the latest spot from Crispin Porter Bogusky Brazil for Johnnie Walker. This must be one of the few brands left that can still today make its original mascot, the celebrated Striding Man, the core of its advertising without seeming hokey or lame. That's an immense benefit since there are so few other ways you can advertise alcoholic spirits without falling foul of the regulators. We winced slightly at some of the decade-themed musical cues but the overall effect is very nice. 

Adbrands Weekly Update 1st Mar 2018: In what may be a step too far for equality, Diageo announced a limited edition variant of Johnnie Walker to tie in with International Womens' Day and Women's History Month. The Jane Walker Black Label edition features the familiar "striding man" brand mascot recast as a lady in top hat and tails. Retail price for the edition will be $34. Diageo said it will donate $1 from every sale to women's charities in the US. The reaction on social media was mixed to say the least, with several female commentators calling out the promotion as a cynical and patronising marketing ploy.

Adbrands Weekly Update 17th Sep 2015: Ads of the Week: "Joy Will Take You Further". Anomaly's first big global branding campaign for Johnnie Walker adopts a very different stance from most other alcohol advertising, which is usually moody, serious, aspirational. This, on the other hand, is just raucous upbeat fun. Or rather JOY. Old school whisky drinkers will probably hate it, but we think it's a bold move, more like a spot for soft drinks than hard liquor. Various celebs help out, including Jude Law (in what look like out-takes from that JW Blue Label spot he did for Anomaly last year) and Jenson Button. Refreshingly different.

Adbrands Weekly Update 19th Mar 2015: Impact Databank published its annual ranking of the world's Top 100 most valuable spirits brands. Johnnie Walker retained its commanding lead at the top of the table, despite an 8% slide in value to $5.2bn. The Diageo brand has suffered the effects of a clampdown on luxury spending in China as well as political turbulence in Russia. Smirnoff held second place almost $2bn lower at $3.4bn, but long-standing #3 Bacardi slipped back to 5th at $2.5bn. It was overtaken by Hennessy cognac ($3.1bn) and Jack Daniel's ($2.7bn).

Adbrands Weekly Update 29th Dec 2014: Bartle Bogle Hegarty lost its stewardship of Diageo's Johnnie Walker whisky after a 15-year partnership. The new agency is MDC's Anomaly, which had already slipped onto the roster earlier this year with a lavish film for Johnnie Walker Blue Label starring Jude Law. Now Anomaly gets the whole business. "A new and exciting era lies ahead for Johnnie Walker," said Guy Escolme, Johnnie Walker global brand director. "In Anomaly we believe we have a partner who will help us take fresh strides with stunning creative that will support the brand's future global growth."

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Free for all users | see full profile for current activities: Born in 1805, John Walker established a distillery in the back room of his grocery store in Kilmarnock in around 1850, in order to produce whisky for sale in jugs. The business prospered and was eventually taken over by his son Alexander. However the shop was badly damaged by flooding in the early 1850s, and Alexander persuaded his father to abandon grocery retail and begin wholesaling whisky to other retailers. Alexander had apprenticed for a tea merchant, where he learned the art of blending, and he used that experience to create the family's first blend in 1867, known as Old Highland Whisky. From 1870 it was sold in characteristic square bottles, a style later borrowed by Jack Daniel's. After Alexander Walker's death in 1889, his own sons George and Alexander II took over the business. George handled sales and marketing in London, establishing offices around the world, while Alexander set about learning the mysteries of the blending process, quickly becoming a master of the art. 

To keep track with demand, Alexander also increased production by acquiring several rivals in Scotland, including in 1893 the Cardow Distillery in Speyside, which became the cornerstone of all the company's blends, as well as its new headquarters. In 1909, in honour of their grandfather, the brothers renamed Old Highland as Johnnie Walker Black Label, while also introducing a new, lighter blend, aimed at whisky-and-soda drinkers. This was named Johnnie Walker Red Label. To promote these two products, the company adopted its the logo of the "striding man", in fact a portrait of their grandfather commissioned from noted commercial artist Tom Browne. The brand was enormously successful, exported worldwide through what was by now a substantial global network reaching 120 countries. The recognition factor was heightened by the company's production of large numbers of promotional items including branded ashtrays, trays and water jugs to promote the whisky at point of sale. In 1920, Alexander Walker was knighted for his services to industry.

Five years later, John Walker & Sons joined forces with Dewar's and Buchanan's to form The Distillers Company. Ironically, despite its worldwide profile, Johnnie Walker was less valuable to Distillers than its other brands. Haig, for example, was the leading whisky in Britain, while Buchanan's Black & White was more popular in North America. Over the following years Distillers expanded its presence further, and also acquired businesses in chemicals, manufacturing and other sectors. In the late 1950s it made a disastrous move into pharmaceuticals, distributing pregnancy drug Thalidomide in the UK. This was later withdrawn when it was found to cause tragic deformities in children. (Distillers and its successor companies contributed a substantial lump sum each year for the next 50 years to a trust fund in aid of victims of the drug. In 2005, Diageo settled its outstanding commitments with a final contribution of to the fund of £149m). Gradually, however, Johnnie Walker grew in stature, overtaking its sister whisky brands. 

During the 1970s sales doubled, and it had become Distillers' biggest brand by the end of that decade. However in 1977, following Britain's entry into what was then the EEC, the company took the highly controversial decision to withdraw Red Label from the British market. This followed pressure from EEC regulators to change a system whereby continental wholesalers were charged more for supplies than their British counterparts. Rather than cut prices in the UK, Red Label was withdrawn altogether in that market until 1983. (In the process it lost its position as the country's #2 whisky). Shortly afterwards Distillers acquired Somerset Importers, the company with exclusive distribution rights in the US. 

That year, Distillers was also at the centre of a brutal takeover battle between Guinness and Argyll Group. The business was ultimately captured by Guinness, a deal later overshadowed by financial scandal (see Guinness profile for more). Over the following years Johnnie Walker remained the leading brand in an expanding portfolio of spirits formed by the merger of Distillers with Guinness's Bell's division, and then with the spirits portfolio of Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo. In 1999, Diageo launched "Keep Walking", the first ever global marketing campaign for Johnnie Walker, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. See full profile for current activities

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