#BrandFocus: Keep walking, the South African way
by Sabrina Forbes. There are many global and local brands named after fictional characters: Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Johnny Hexburg, Ronald McDonald… even Tony the Tiger, as grrrrrreat as he is. This isn’t the case with Johnnie Walker, currently one of the five largest premium spirit brands in the world.
The brand’s history dates back to 1819, when 15-year-old John Walker lost his father. Within the year, the family farm had been sold and the money used to buy a grocer’s shop in his local town, Kilmarnock, UK. Without much in the way of business (or life) experience, the youngster found himself blending tea for the locals, a skill that would change the whisky world forever: Any whisky available in retail at the time consisted of single malts that often varied greatly in taste and texture; using his tea-blending experience, Walker began blending these malts into a liquid whose flavour profile he could control.
He died in 1843, leaving a thriving business to his son. A keen business man, Alexander used the industrial revolution to his advantage. The railroad had just arrived in Kilmarnock, carrying good to the great ships that travelled to all corners of the earth. So, he created a distribution network that shipped his late father’s whisky worldwide, using sailors as advocates for the brand. “He invented the concept of influencer marketing. The Walkers are just pioneers, way ahead of their times,” says Karabelo Nkoe, Johnnie Walker South Africa senior brand manager.
Alexander also innovated the use of square bottles, which causes less breakages in transit, and pioneered the highly recognised (and exact) 24° angle of the label. By 1862, sales averaged 100 000 gallons each year and the first copyrighted blend, “Old Highland Whisky”, hit the shelves in 1867; the recipe is a direct ancestor of what we now call Johnnie Walker Black Label. For Nkoe, there was a method to this madness. The square bottle is sturdier and fits more liquid, while the slanted angle fits more copy and allows the font to be bigger without losing too much space. This slant has now become an iconic visual, copied the world over.
According to Nkoe, by the time of Alexander’s death in 1889, the Johnnie Walker brand had really started to develop in culture. Walker’s grandsons, Alexander II and George, introduced the naming of each blend according to the colour of the label and so Red, Black, Green, Gold Label Reserve, and Blue were born. The brand’s even-more iconic mantra of Keep Walking had also been brought to life by then; The Striding Man logo was sketched by a young artist, Tom Browne, on the back of a menu during lunch and remains the core visual for the brand today.
Today, on year shy of its 200th anniversary, the brand’s mantra and logo still speak to their original purpose, the rallying cry for progress and the continuous striving for change. It’s a mantra that extends beyond race, gender, and creed.
Keep Walking South Africa
At the beginning of 2019, Johnnie Walker SA launched the Keep Walking South Africa campaign, shot by Dani Hynes of Egg Films, that features well-known faces — Trevor Noah, Nelson Makamo, and Chad le Clos — and perhaps lesser-known but equal in striving for greatness: fashion designer Thebe Magugu, businessman Ze Nxumalo, cinematographer Motheo Moeng, trombone player Siya Makuzeni, SA’s first black female helicopter pilot Refilwe Ledwaba, and actress and businesswoman Enhle Mbali Maphumulo.
Nkoe believes the global “Keep Walking” fits perfectly within a SA context, considering our tumultuous history. “We are leveraging [the mantra] and are really trying to reintroduce Keep Walking in that same space because SA has gone through some challenging times in itself… We’re a very resilient nation that has gone through a lot and, I think, achieved a lot as well over the past 25 years. We really wanted to celebrate that spirit of progress through South Africans who have progressed their life in their own special way. We want to show SA that, even though it’s been tough and we’ve been through a lot, here are some people that you can look up to — to gather this inspiration around their personal stories and celebrat[e] their steps while honouring every mile that they have kept walking,” he says. Even the act of walking talks to this idea, that each small, calculated step gets you closer to your end goal.
While the brand has used “Keep Walking” in marketing communication before, Nkoe believes that the current approach speaks to consumers in a much-more relevant way, allowing the brand ambassadors to tell their personal stories in their own way. As authenticity continues to develop as a trend in the marketing industry, Johnnie Walker’s message is one of partnerships, not of top-down brand communication. “The more you partner with your consumers, the more you can be a part of their lives,” he says.
When asked whether it’s true that all brands seem to be catching onto this and riding the ‘authenticity’ bandwagon, Nkoe agrees that, while some might be simply doing it for commercial reasons, he believes that authenticity is at the heart of the whisky brand: “[It] is all about inspiring personal progress. That’s what the brand stands for and it’s always been the case. It’s a thing that we have, as a brand, been doing for almost 200 years. This means it’s the perfect space for us to live in. It’s not like we are bringing in a new lens that consumers have not seen before. We are speaking through the brand’s history and heritage and the impact it has had on inspiring personal progress to tell these stories of South Africans in a relevant way that is really authentic.”
Additional brand marketing trends Nkoe mentions are innovation, experiences, and the rise of content and influencer marketing. As consumers generally seek out new things and different brand experiences, innovation continues to be key across the board and across all industries. The way in which consumers used to experience and consume a brand has changed, so how do brands currently fit into the lives of consumers without just speaking to them directly? He believes there’s growing merit in making brands more relevant to consumers in the spaces that they’re already in.
For Nkoe, the rise of content and influencer marketing speaks to introducing brand relevance through having someone, who is considered influential, bring your brand into their world, letting their consumers view it through their unique lens.
What used to be a male-dominated market is no longer: women across the world have opened themselves to the (often-acquired) taste of whisky (or whiskey, if you’re into the Irish kind). As a brand, Johnnie Walker wants to ensure it doesn’t isolate anyone when it comes to its communication but, at the same time, it wants to remain relevant in culture and focus primarily on its key demographic: the rising middle-income millennial. It’s a way of balancing how it shows up to the younger demographic with specific needs and wants while paying homage to the historical history and core elements of the brand.
When asked whether it’s simply another ‘bandwagon’ situation, what with every whisky brand focusing on the ‘youth’, specifically young men, Nkoe quickly explains how, although the brand is focusing on the youth especially when it comes to digital marketing communications, women as a demographic is a major focus area. “It’s a matter of the way the marketing landscape has changed. A lot of it happens on digital and this is where a lot of the younger demographic is. That’s why I feel most of the communication is trying to at least engage with and have a conversation with the younger demographic. You want to make sure you’re still speaking in the correct, relevant language to whoever you are speaking to… It would be a shame not to engage or speak with women as a whisky brand and display women in whisky in a more-prevalent and -relevant way. We want to make sure we show the world that whisky is not just an old boys club and we want to bring that to the fore more,” he adds. The Keep Walking South Africa campaign exemplifies what Nkoe says, as it showcases several pioneering women.
Johnnie Walker is also driving the use of whisky in cocktails. There aren’t many other brands doing this, and many people don’t know that whisky was one of the original cocktail liquids. Cocktails may be becoming a lost heritage but, according to Nkoe, it’s more because the market hasn’t really begun to explore the space properly. Johnnie Walker is looking for new experiences to engage with a broader demographic and, for those who think whisky is too harsh straight up, cocktails are a good introduction. “We don’t want to restrict consumers because we feel that it’s best enjoyed how you feel. If you want to have a Johnnie and Ginger, go for it. It’s more about making sure that, even though consumers understand the notes, they can create their own style and enjoy it in the way they want to,” he says, adding that it goes back to creating a brand with relevance in culture.
Key competitors in price and perception include Jameson and Ballantine’s, and Nkoe welcomes the ‘fight’: “Competition is really important and, without competition, we wouldn’t be where we are as a brand. Our market has strong competition; we value that and we do want to see it coming up. It challenges us to be better, and creates a healthy environment and system for brands to coexist.”
An innovation that has put Johnnie Walker even more on the global map was its recent collaboration with HBO and Game of Thrones (GoT). At the time of this interview (March 2019), the new White Walker varietal wasn’t yet available in SA. Guests were later introduced to the blend while being able to watch episode one of season eight at a live 3am cinema-screening launch — the same time it aired in the US. White Walker is the first whisky of its kind meant to be served straight out the freezer, with the bottle changing colour as it reaches optimum temperature to reveal the phrase “Winter is here”.
Another brand extension is the 200ml Pocket Scotch. For Nkoe, it’s a funky, sleek pack perfect for sharing at any occasion where whisky might not be a ‘thing’. You can bring it anywhere with you, right in your pocket.
Johnnie Walker aims to have a place in your whisky cabinet, on your dining table, and everywhere you go. It’s a brand that continues to speak to the human desire of consistently trying to improve and strive for a better life, striving to remind us that each small step counts towards a greater future, for all.
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Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.