Diageo has just opened its latest Johnnie Walker house in Taipei’s Taoyuan airport. The outlet is the brand’s second retail showcase, the other being in Mumbai. Chong describes the other locations as having evolved into something that is “part museum and part fine dining”.
The decision to open retail-focused outlets in Mumbai and Taipei came on the basis that both cities are already very sizeable whisky markets. Having a presence in Taiwan, Chong says, “allows us to trade up from premium variants to something more bespoke”. In India, Diageo recently acquired United Spirits to gain a bigger slice of the overall market. A big part of Diageo’s strategy to keep and expand Johnnie Walker’s share of the whisky market is content and entertainment, which has become increasingly elaborate. Symphony in Blue, a piece of immersive theatre to promote the Blue Label product using the Johnnie Walker House as its stage, launched in London last week and is expected to make its Asia debut in Kuala Lumpur in the near future. Chong explained his strategy as follows.
What is the purpose of the Johnny Walker House?
When we first built one in Shanghai in 2011, it was a branding exercise. People couldn’t tell the difference between Scotch and cognac. We thought of it as a private space to educate consumers. At the same time, we were able to create bespoke whiskies and we realised that we could turn it into a profit centre. On the one hand it was building brand equity, and at the same time generating good returns for us. Then we saw an opportunity to make it even bigger. We opened in Beijing and our focus was on creating a space where we could engage consumers and sell them something they couldn’t get anywhere else—it became very much about ROI. It has become a very strong retail focus while allowing us to engage consumers in an experiential way. So there’s no longer just one objective.
How do you define ‘content’?
For us, the product is content. Each product carries a certain story. At the high end, we create specific variants that you can only get [at the Johnnie Walker House] and cater to the needs of the high-net-worth individual. Content can be literally anything. Anyone can produce content. The difference is whether it’s good or bad. The way we see it is that it needs to have a purpose. Our purpose is telling the story of Johnnie Walker and making whisky.
Our challenge [being a 200-year-old brand] is how to tell the story in creative, fresh ways, and how to go back into the archives and uncover new facts. It needs to be original in the way it’s delivered, and needs to be sharable. We want people to relate it back to others. We sometimes commission local artists to create an interpretation of the striding man for a specific house; they have an interpretation of how Johnnie Walker travels to a specific city and represent that through beautiful illustrations. We then use that in the house and to create whisky bottles that we can commercialise. We’ve seen a shift in luxury consumption in China due to the clampdown on extravagance. This allows us to speak to the intellectual side of consumers—they buy the product because it’s a piece of heritage they can own.
Two years ago we embarked on a project to transform how people think about whisky. We wanted to create the world’s first multi-sensorial whisky experience. Symphony in Blue in London featured six different environments. Each one told the audience something about whisky or Johnnie Walker. We wanted to communicate craftsmanship, rarity and heritage. We converted the outdoor courtyard of the building into whisky woodlands. In another area, you feel as if you’re being transported into the highlands of Scotland. We invited people to experience putting barrels together by hand and got across the fact that everything is handmade and hasn’t changed for 200 years. We also had an ice room with a 10,000-year-old block of ice from Denmark. We selected just 600 people to attend.
How do you measure what you do?
We put on a lot of events and [the content from them] has to be sharable. Hopefully the content we create will live on. We’ve tried to allow the manifestation of the Symphony in Blue to travel, partnering with Iris for a version that will be launched online and as an app. So one thing is to generate content, but we also look at the commercial outcome. We launched a limited edition gift pack around the Symphony in Blue and sold quite a few bottles. [The Johnnie Walker House] allows us to launch products at scale through retail channels. We’ve also had a master blender there [Jim Beveridge] to create bespoke personalised blends that start at [US$130,000]. We have gained exposure to high-net-worth consumers there and this has led to lead generation that would only have been available through the Johnnie Walker houses.
What advice would you give to a marketer wanting to derive ROI from content?
Everyone has an understanding of metrics and KPIs, but it’s about the quality of views and impressions, not just the numbers. Take our Gentleman’s Wager [a film starring Jude Law]: we achieved 30 million views in six weeks. We were very clear in our objectives and worked with Google, PHD and Unruly to reach the eyeballs of high-net-worth individuals. In the past, a lot of marketers would have jumped at 30 million eyeballs [regardless of their quality], but now we have to think layer by layer—quality is very important.