Julie Bramham, Global Brand Director, Johnnie Walker
How has your brand reacted to the events of 2020? Is there anything you would call out that the brand has done that exemplifies the Johnnie Walker approach? How are your customer’s and consumer’s needs changing and how is Johnnie Walker responding?
Obviously 2020 has been a very difficult year for everyone as we continue to face up to the challenges of the global pandemic. We had big plans in 2020 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our business but we, like the wider world, put many of our plans on hold.
One thing we’ve kept in mind this year is that Johnnie Walker was born out of adversity. Our founder, John Walker, actually began this 200-year journey following the death of his father – the decision to sell the family farm and buy a small grocers shop in Kilmarnock was the first step on a journey that led us to where we are today. The spirit of Johnnie Walker – of progress and our message ‘Keep Walking’ has sustained us in difficult times throughout our 200-year history and helped us through the challenges of 2020.
Throughout the year it was massively important to us to support our wider industry – knowing the impact the events of 2020 have had. During the summer Diageo, our parent company, announced a global program – Raising the Bar – to support pubs and bars and help them to recover following the pandemic. The program provides targeted support to help pay for the physical equipment needed for outlets to re-open. For example, in the UK, Diageo is providing initial funding for: ‘hygiene kits’ with high-quality permanent sanitizer dispense units, medical grade hand sanitizer and a range of personal protection equipment (such as masks and gloves); help to pubs and bars to establish partnerships with online reservations and cashless systems; mobile bars and outdoor equipment. Our spirits facilities were also adapted to create millions of bottles of hand sanitizer for people around the world.
We also wanted to ensure our whiskies could still be enjoyed, albeit in new ways! It is obvious that the very simple act of getting together and enjoying a whisky has been a real challenge for people and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
People are spending more time at home, in smaller group celebrations, that means it was and is important for Johnnie Walker to adapt to those changes, and make sure the brand stays relevant. We do this by being innovative in the way we think about our brand. As consumers shifted to at-home cocktail-making we launched new initiatives like Johnnie Walker ‘Kitchen Sink Drinks’ – inviting people to submit ingredients they had at home to our bartenders, who showed them how to mix them into delicious Scotch cocktails.
Keep Walking means thinking about the future and persevering through challenging times – we don’t think the phrase has ever been so relevant to the world at large.
What have been the biggest lessons in 2020 and what will you be taking forward into 2021?
We think it has been wonderful to see how people have adapted to the challenges that the global pandemic poses. It is more difficult to gather in big groups, so people have been finding innovative ways of coming together (mainly digitally) to enjoy our whiskies and serves – we expect that focus on the at-home occasion will stay and maybe even change the way people consume our whiskies forever. It is important for us to adapt to that and to provide ways of engaging with people that takes this change into account.
It has been wonderful to see people come together in our industry to rise to the challenge of these difficult times – that has been an inspiring lesson in the power of community.
After 2020, I do not think that we’ll ever take for granted the simply joy of sharing a drink with friends in a great bar.
Have the last 12 months reaffirmed or changed your view on how brands need to exist and operate, both now and in the future?
We have the same pioneering spirit that our founder John Walker had when he first threw open the doors to his small grocery store all those years ago and that is something that we will continue to keep at the forefront of our minds. The last 12 months have reaffirmed that ideal. That defining spirit, which is part of our DNA, has remained the same for two centuries and we intend to hold true to that. We also believe that this will help us thrive into the next 200 years.
What is next for the Johnnie Walker brand – where will you be focusing activity in 2021?
We look forward to carving anew path for what we believe whisky can be in the future.
We are opening Johnnie Walker Princes Street, a new multi-sensory, immersive visitor experience in the heart of Edinburgh. This new destination, for whisky lovers, the whisky curious and the Scottish visitor, will help people discover the sensory world and endless possibilities of Scotch. Next summer we will open the doors to eight epic floors, two world-class bars, one spectacular roof terrace and an unforgettable whisky experience.
We want people to use Johnnie Walker Princes Street as a gateway to explore more and take off on a whisky adventure across Scotland and check out the brand-new visitor experiences opening at the distilleries of Glenkinchie, Clynelish, Cardhu and Caol Ila. These new and upgraded visitor experiences are part of a £180m investment from Diageo, the biggest concerted program ever seen in Scotland’s whisky tourism sector.
We also have big ambitions for the environmental impact of our brand. We’ve pushed the boundaries of quality and taste in Scotch, and we intend to tackle our sustainability goals with the same spirit.
We are reducing our environmental impact by lessening the carbon footprint of our whiskies and our packaging; for example, in 2020 all the plastic in our giftpacks was made from 100% recycled plastic. Alongside this, we are working to restore the natural resources we use when making our whiskies – particularly in our home in Scotland where we have committed to planting one million trees over the next four years. In fact, we’ve planted nearly half a million already. And we are leading by example as we look to reinvent our packaging and develop innovative sustainable solutions, including Pulp, which we’ll roll out next year.
This sustainability journey is massively exciting, not only because it unearths new and better ways for us do things – but by sharing those ideas with the wider spirits industry and beyond we can deliver real, impactful change for everyone.
As always though, whisky is at the heart of everything we do, and we will be looking at how we can continue to push the boundaries of what is possible. We’ll continue to innovate with flavour to create whiskies and serves that thrill your senses. The passion and spirit of the pioneers who forged our business in the 1800s, driving it from the four corners of Scotland to the four corners of the world, will continue to inform Johnnie Walker. Restless, ambitious, committed; pursuing quality and flavor above all else; refusing to accept limits on ambition… we will always believe more is possible.
This is our driving passion, just as it was for our founders.