Staff Reporters
Apr 23, 2014

Women and whisky: Diageo's gender-neutral marketing formula

SINGAPORE - From mad men to unruly cowboys, whisky has an unmistakably masculine reputation in popular culture, but its makers and marketers are far less gender-focused. Mark Sandys, category director for whisky and reserve at Diageo, talks about the female growth market in Asia-Pacific.

Mark Sandys
Mark Sandys

The first words to come out of Greta Garbo’s mouth in her premier ‘talkie’ feature film in 1930 were “Gimme a whisky.” And throughout the prohibition era in the US, women played a major role in bootleg and smuggling operations (partly because some state laws forbade officers from physically searching them). But Asia’s women whisky drinkers may have been harder to spot until recently. While some male stereotypes around the brown liquor category seem to stick, marketers are largely leaving them behind.

One report from the Scotch Whisky Association says Singapore is the largest per capita whisky consuming nation; another calls Taiwan the largest export market by value for Scotch in Asia. So with the region’s widening want for whisky, how are makers reaching these consumers? And what role does gender play in the advertising? Campaign’s April issue includes an extensive look at how many FMCG brands market to APAC women, so we spoke to Sandys for a different take on how companies tailor messages specifically for female consumers.

Two years ago, women were a steadily growing consumer segment for whisky in Asia. What percentage of sales do they represent today?

Women are an exciting consumer segment that continues to grow. In China for instance, women account for a quarter of all whisky consumption. In India, the number of women enjoying whisky has gone up by nearly 30 per cent versus last year, and our team on the ground is telling us that female participation at whisky tastings has increased by around a third on last year. A new generation of young, professional female whisky drinkers are introducing their friends, colleagues and clients to the spirit. We fully expect the whisky trend to continue—not least because of the huge range of choice and information now available.

What is the demographic of the female whisky market? Age? Income?  

Whisky is a category that has wide appeal. There are women in their 40s, 50s and older who have long enjoyed whisky, but it is also increasingly popular among younger women. Those born in the 1980s are looking more and more at whisky as their drink of choice. They are earning more and increasingly want to spend more too.

Income levels vary, from middle-earners enjoying whisky as a social drink, to the highest earners looking for limited editions and special blends. In fact one of the first bespoke Johnnie Walker ‘Signature Blend’ bought at the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai—costing some US$130,000 [about RMB800,000)—was purchased by a Chinese businesswoman.

What type of marketing messages and methods do women best respond to, and how has Diageo adapted to the female market?

It is interesting to see how the growing love of whisky among women has blurred the lines between archetypal “male” versus “female” marketing. We see many of the key themes appealing to both, for example the idea that your choice of drink reflects your personality or individuality and, with the more premium products, your status. In Taiwan for instance, affluent women are driving something of a whisky “boom”, and awareness of the story of a particular whisky is a mark of discernment. We have therefore worked to make our brands more “gender bilingual”.

Fundamentally we believe that “bilingual” marketing makes for better marketing. One of the key ways of doing this is by raising our standards of design. New launches such as John Walker & Sons Odyssey or Johnnie Walker Platinum have stunning, aesthetically beautiful pack designs that we know appeal to both men and women.

It is also significant that a new breed of whisky bars are opening across Asia, which are trend-leading bars, frequented equally by men and women and which stock a wide range of high quality whiskies. These bars and their clientele are accelerating the growth of the discerning female whisky drinker.

As we discuss in our recent article about marketing to women, many brands still use tactics that shame or try to panic women into buying products; do you see a similar approach anywhere in the alcoholic drinks segment?  Is there a best practice for a liquor brand to reach women?

Diageo has a comprehensive marketing guide that regulates how we present our products to everyone, whether male or female. We always show respect for consumers and work within the industry to encourage similar behaviour.

In terms of best practice, we feel it’s important to never underestimate or patronise women. We have had great success with Bailey’s in China creating a new gifting occasion (“Sisterhood Day”), which celebrates the strong camaraderie between female peers in a society where most women come from one-child families. In H1 this financial year our sales were up 37 per cent.

What is more important in terms of marketing whisky to women: positioning in terms of advertising/communications, or experiential activities?

Traditional gender myths are really being broken. Women are a growing market, rather than a niche market, and they like whisky for what it is.

Advertising is very important for the category, regardless of consumers’ gender, helping to build the brand and its credentials by emphasising quality and heritage. The experiential side is very exciting and plays a big part in converting brands perceptions into “liquid on lips”. This is something we are doing a lot of, particularly at our Johnnie Walker Houses in Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. We organise immersive activities such as food pairings and tasting sessions to help people enhance their understanding and appreciation for whisky.

We also think it is important to work with high-profile female influencers who will be attractive to both men and women. Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing was a guest of honour at the global launch of John Walker & Sons Odyssey, while Karen Mok was present to open the Johnnie Walker House Beijing, alongside Jude Law.

Do women’s tastes and preferences in whisky differ from that of men in Asia and how does the marketing differ to account for the variance? Or does it? Are your ads one-size-fits-all in terms of gender?

The primary rule that we have learnt is not to try to dumb down whisky to make it more appealing to women. There are many women whose preference is for the stronger tasting “peatier” whiskies such as Lagavulin, rather than softer styles of whisky.

Is Diageo experimenting with flavours or blends to suit women and if so what are those and how do they align with female outlook and tastes?

We are not looking to experiment with flavours within the whisky category as insights tell us women wish to be treated and approached in the same way as men. However, outside of whisky women are a driving force behind our innovation in the region. Not only is our Asia Pacific innovation team led by a woman, but we are always looking to innovate with our female consumers in mind. One recent example is Baileys Chocolat Luxe, which is an extension of a brand already hugely popular with women. We also encourage women to mix Baileys in different ways, such as with ice, coffee or milk tea.

Which Asian nations are growth markets for female whisky drinkers, and what do you suppose is driving that expansion?

Women are becoming more empowered, affluent and discerning and are looking for more choice in their drinking associations. China, India and Taiwan are particularly strong for us. In all of these markets we see new trend leading bars opening that cater for these changing tastes, offering high quality whiskies, cocktails and other spirits. This trend is introducing whisky to a new audience of consumers.

Which market has the most sophisticated female drinkers, in terms of taste or high-end products, and how do you target them as opposed to markets in lower stages of development?

The sophistication trend is really region-wide. It tends to start around major city hubs, whether that is Beijing, Seoul or Ho Chi Minh City. World Class, our global bartender training programme, allows us to showcase our portfolio of super premium “Reserve” brands to customers and introduces consumers to new categories encouraging them to trade up.

In certain markets like India, if women drink alcohol, society may consider that as breaking a taboo; what, if anything, is Diageo doing to approach or support women drinkers in such places?

Across the world, Diageo has a long track record of support for programmes that aim to promote responsible drinking. As alcohol sheds its historically masculine image in India, more women are deciding to try new things for themselves.

Diageo supports server education and training for the responsible service, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Diageo Bar Academy is a programme that provides high-quality, accredited bartender training inspiring bartenders and elevating standards in the region’s drinks industry. World Class is also immersing consumers in the world of fine drinking. Both initiatives are encouraging consumers to drink better, not more.

Highballs became popular among women in Japan and Taiwan in recent years. To what extent can a drinks brand engineer a trend like this? Is there such a thing as a viral cocktail?

Brands can absolutely play a key role in starting drink trends. The advent of social media multiplies the viral nature of trends enormously, and through our World Class social media feeds we are seeing trends, techniques and recipes transcending across the world and constantly evolving.

In recent years we have seen the return of classic whisky cocktails such as the Old Fashioned or the Whisky Sour made with a modern twist—for example an Old Fashioned made with Zacapa Rum or a ‘Gold Fashioned’ with Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve. The World Class bartender competition both starts these trends and picks up on consumer trends.

Has whisky become a power drink for women? Is it more for professional appeal or play?

We are noticing that the growing popularity of whisky among women is being driven by the pure enjoyment of it. A deeper understanding of the category has meant more women are choosing whisky as their drink of choice.


Campaign Asia

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