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By putting its best foot forward and creating a unified global campaign Diageo has reversed the fortunes of its Johnnie Walker brand. Now it’s going places, says Patrick Schmitt

HAD YOU ever noticed that one of the world’s most famous advertising icons, Johnny Walker’s Striding Man, has actually been heading backwards for most of his life? No? Then you also probably didn’t spot that in 1999 he changed direction, this time to walk left to right across the label, not right to left as he had been for so many years.

Why, you might ask? Well, the direction of the Striding Man was key to a hugely expensive operation by Diageo to turn the brand around.

It wasn’t only the logo that was heading the wrong way, but the whisky’s sales figures, so the company committed £100 million to market the brand on a global scale, using the idea and strapline, "Keep Walking".

Of course, to associate the idea of progresswith Johnnie Walker in the consumer’s mind – the aim of such a campaign – the Striding Man needed to be facing forwards, which meant changing the image on some 14,000 SKUs in 184 countries.

Once this was done, the image would fit the marketing message. And the result? Well, by 2001 Johnnie Walker had become the world’s leading Scotch, overtaking Chivas Regal, its arch rival.

Key to this success was Walker’s powerful advertising campaign, which started in 2000 on television with its "Icons" series, featuring the likes of actor Harvey Keitel and footballer Roberto Baggio and the personal battles they’d overcome, or "biographical walks" as Diageo calls them.

These were then complemented by strikingly simple print advertising, using images of the Striding Man to illustrate progress.  Key to the new approach was its globally united message.

Prior to Diageo’s massive injection of investment, there were seven different campaigns running in a range of  markets, building separate brand identities.  Furthermore, Red and Black labels had been treated as individual brands.

Post ’99, however, Johnnie Walker began to build a common identity, and the position of global brand director was created to ensure it was consistent. 

The television advertising has now developed beyond "Icons" to the awarding-winning "Fish" campaign, which involved leaping dolphins gradually morphing into humans before walking up a beach, and now the "Tree" advert, which features a mature tree uprooting itself and crossing various terrains to end up in the centre of a city square.

Why it would want to leave the open countryside for the confines of a concrete-covered urban space is baffling, but the point is, the tree has made it, it’s progress. 

The print advertising on the other hand has been about "making the brand part of the landscape", according to Ben Anderson, global brand director, "and it’s not just a journey, but about dramatising the values it takes to progress."

The actual execution is combined into the local media of each country, and although the overall message is the same, Anderson notes that he thinks Johnnie Walker "is the only brand doing a campaign so customised on this scale".

There has also been an emphasis on revitalising the image and sales of Johnnie Walker Red label, which has involved encouraging "long" consumption in particular.  The result of all this work has been that Johnnie Walker grew by 9% in the first quarter of 2004, or by 330m extra servings, to reach its highest sales ever – and apparently that translates into 134 glasses of the whisky being consumed every second, or 11.4m 9L cases each year.

The next and latest step has been the global launch of a Green Label which is, in fact, a rebranded Johnnie Walker Pure Malt.  This is only the fifth Johnnie Walker label to be created in almost 200 years, according to Anderson, and certainly the first of the 21st century.

The four labels before Green, in ascending order of expense, are Red, Black, Gold and Blue,  and the aim of Green, at approximately £27 retail, is to slot between the Black and Gold.  (A White Label did exist in early 1900 as a rung below Red, but it never took off and was dropped).

Anderson sees the Green label consumer as "a brown spirits drinker and likely to be a Johnnie Walker Black drinker who may be switching into malt or Cognacs, and we want him to try Green Label".

This addition to the range comprises a blend of 15-year-old single malts (Black is a blend of 12-year-old whiskies, and Gold is an 18-year-old blended Scotch).  As for the effect of the Green on Diageo’s range of whiskies as a whole, it is hoped the new label will benefit, not detract, from the company’s Classic Malts, some of which it contains.

And the taste? Well, the thinking goes that a blend of good malts does not result in a bad blend, or even a bad malt, and it’s true.

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