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How Johnnie Walker Builds Brand Ambassadors (Hint: Free Whiskey)
Tuesday, 29 March 2011 00:00

I know what you're thinking: "Of course Johnnie Walker is good at building brand ambassadors. They sell alcohol, for crying out loud! If I sold alcohol, I'd have loyal brand ambassadors also, believe you me!"

It's true. Alcohol is easier to sell than a great many things. But that doesn't mean the free whiskey tasting I attended last week wasn't also a great case study in masterful brand marketing.
Halfway through the event I told the all-male, whiskey-drinking posse I was with that Johnnie Walker would probably make back the cost of the event in whiskey sales from the audience within a week. The true hope from Johnnie Walker's point of view, though, was that the quality of the experience make brand ambassadors out of us all. Yes, there was free whiskey. But the event's success was more the result of a series of thoughtful touches – the kind of "no-duh" user experience thinking that Apple is known for, and the strategy that Seth Godin recently argued on his blog:

Cheaper is the last refuge of the marketer unable to invent a better product and tell a better story. The goal, no matter what you sell, is to be seen as irreplaceable, essential and priceless.
 
If the goal is not to invent a better product, but to tell a better story, Johnnie Walker succeeded in spades. Here were some of the key elements:

  1. Straight-up, tell the story. The most lasting visual most took away from the event is likely to be actor Robert Carlyle, walking with purpose through the Scottish countryside, telling the history of the company through his heavy Scottish accent. Event organizers played the video almost as soon as we were seated, setting the background for the whiskey tasting, seemingly placing us in the grand scheme of history. Simple video, good story, well executed. Watch it here.
  2. Good venue, attractive hosts. No doubt, when you're selling a brand, atmosphere matters. Event organizers rented out the Andrew M. Mellon auditorium, a space replete with high ceilings, grand columns, black curtains, and all-together important-feeling ambiance. Meanwhile, the "brand manager" was funny, cool, well-dressed, slightly scruffy, personable, and enviable. And, he was surrounded throughout the event by at least a dozen pretty, young women dressed in black evening gowns and heels, whose job was to serve us whiskey. I can assure you, the mostly professional male audience much appreciated it.
  3. Incorporate social media. In one corner, a photographer and assistant were more than happy to snap your picture in front of a classy-looking Johnnie Walker backdrop, then upload the photo to your facebook account. ("Look, I was at a free whiskey tasting, and you weren't!") On the large screens in the auditorium, event organizers streamed twitter feeds related to past whiskey tastings and prominently displayed a hash-tag, should anyone in the audience tweet about the event.
  4. Cultivate exclusivity. This was facebook's differentiator early on, and signs of it at the Johnnie Walker tasting were everywhere. First of all, you had to be invited to RSVP, and space was limited. Once inside, we were welcomed as though we were special guests. And the $3,500 bottle of "John Walker" on display (less than 400 bottles made, only from distilleries operating in John Walker's lifetime) only added to the elite feeling.
  5. Bonus: Use iPads. Upon entering, the first thing we did was fill out what was essentially market survey about our drinking habits – on a mounted iPad (see picture). Maybe the ostensible point was to capture market research, but let's get real: The Johnnie Walker brand is just way cooler when associated so strongly with the iPad, as it now is in my mind.
Cross-posted from RMS Strategies.