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Interview, Part 1: Brian Cox, Director, Scotch Whisky, Diageo North America

September 25, 2015

In recent days, Diageo has begun a global relaunch of Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky, the world’s most valuable spirits brand with annual retail sales above $5.3 billion, according to Impact Databank. While Johnnie Walker outpaced the overall blended Scotch market in the U.S. last year—rising 1% to 1.76 million cases compared with a category down 3% to 6.3 million cases—Diageo sees the revamp as necessary to unlock the storied brand’s potential with a new generation of consumers. SND senior editor Daniel Marsteller recently spoke with Diageo NA Scotch director Brian Cox on Johnnie Walker’s brand update and outlook in this first part of a two-part interview.

SND: Why was it time to shake up Johnnie Walker’s marketing, and what are your goals for the new push, titled “Joy Will Take You Further”?

Cox: This is the biggest single reboot of the brand in some 15 years. Due to a number of factors—like the crisis of 2008—our old tonality didn’t resonate as well as it once did. People’s vision of progress has changed, and it’s time for the brand to evolve along with that. A lot of evidence suggests that the old formula of keeping your nose to the grindstone and working hard so that one far-off day you may be successful—and happy—has proved rather elusive. Instead, it’s those who find joy in what they do in the present—not just in hope for the future—who end up progressing furthest. So in effect, it’s not that success brings happiness, but that happiness brings success, and this is as true for Millennials as Generation X and others. When you look at the roots of Johnnie Walker, you see the entrepreneurial spirit, the constant push for progress. But it needn’t be the kind of grind that it may have become in a lot of advertising, not just ours.

SND: How has Johnnie Walker been faring in the U.S. recently?

Cox: We’re seeing progress at every price point. It’s very much our strategy to have a differentiated, laddered portfolio that allows us to play in every segment of the market, and we’re fully participating in the brown spirits revival that’s happening across the country.

SND: In July, SND had the first look at the new Johnnie Walker Select Casks project. How is the feedback on that innovation so far?

Cox: On Select Casks, our Rye Cask Finish is launching as we speak, so we don’t have consumer feedback yet. But we’ve had universally positive responses everywhere we’ve showcased the product. That includes bartenders, who are picking up on the unique flavor profile, with its more round, Bourbon-like component combined with a spicy rye finish and the smoothness of Scotch. And at 46% abv, it has the backbone to stand out in a cocktail.

SND: Where do you see Johnnie Walker gaining new consumers?

Cox: Today’s spirits consumer is a discoverer of whiskies. People are entering from multiple points into the brown spirits universe. Traditionally, consumers would start with Bourbon or an American blend and ladder their way up into Scotch and single malts. Now they’re entering directly into Scotch and seeking out specific products for their own intrinsic values. Johnnie Walker Double Black is a good example—it’s satisfying the demand for whiskies with higher Islay malt content, while also answering contemporary consumers’ needs as a discovery product.

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