Women to Watch China 2014

Johnnie Walker's Take on What 'Personal Progress' Means in China

How the Brand Tapped Into a Taste for Learning and Travel

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The Johnnie Walker House -- a luxurious setting to taste whisky.
The Johnnie Walker House -- a luxurious setting to taste whisky.
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Siew Ting Foo admittedly "didn't know anything about whisky" when she joined Diageo. Her initiation came during a trip to the Johnnie Walker brand home in Scotland, where she sat down with a master blender for tastings.

"It was an intimate conversation, not a very classroom-style approach," said Ms. Foo, Shanghai-based marketing director for Diageo brands until this month. (She has just moved on to a new role as Diageo's Southeast Asia marketing VP.)

Her experience helped inspire the first Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai – a luxurious tasting center to foster whisky appreciation in a country where the national spirit is gullet-burning baijiu (and where many people know as little about whisky as Ms. Foo once did).

The Shanghai opening in 2011 was followed by another Johnnie Walker House in Beijing in 2012. Recently a new brand embassy opened in Seoul, and the company is discussing more locations.

Ms. Foo has been named as one of Ad Age's Women to Watch China 2014, for her role in building the Johnnie Walker brand in China and for creative risk-taking. Ms. Foo, who aspires to "big and bold" ideas and says China has been a great place to test them, looked back at a few takeaways from her time there.

Siew Ting Foo
Siew Ting Foo

What's China's idea of "personal progress"?

The Johnnie Walker Houses are luxurious, by-invitation-only locales where key opinion leaders go to taste and learn about whisky, for a fee. About 10,000 influencers have visited, often posting afterward on social media.

The unusual concept – not a bar, not a school – was a way to tap into Chinese luxury consumers' aspirations for global travel and learning. It was a Chinese interpretation of Johnnie Walker's brand of "personal progress," symbolized by the brand logo of a striding man.

"I think as Chinese consumers get more well-traveled, and their quest for knowledge becomes bigger and bigger, we felt that could be an opportunity whereby you could start educating people about the brand, educating people about whisky," said Ms. Foo, a Singapore native. Lately, Johnnie Walker has been offering pop-up mini-embassies in malls in second-tier cities, where consumers are not as familiar with the brand.

In crisis there are opportunities, too

For a year and a half, China's government has been pushing austerity, cracking down on conspicuous gift-giving to public officials as well as on lavish banquets. The liquor industry has been hard-hit, and sales of Diageo's scotches fell 20% in China in the year leading up to June 30.

Despite the gloom, there is a bright point – sales of a premium line, Johnnie Walker Blue, have been up "phenomenally in the last three years."

"People are less showy about the type of gifting they do, and we see that the brands that suffer are ones that are more opulent and showy," Ms. Foo said.

The packaging for the Blue line is elegant but understated – appealing to Chinese luxury consumers who are shunning clothes with big logos now. The line lends itself to more meaningful gifting occasions, and to personal consumption too, she said.

What happens when you put Bruce Lee in a commercial

Bruce Lee returns, for a Johnnie Walker ad
Bruce Lee returns, for a Johnnie Walker ad

Johnnie Walker's campaigns in China have often sparked buzz – one in 2011 used mini-documentaries about pioneers in fields from the arts to business to philanthropy, fueling a trend in mini-movies and more real people in Chinese ads. (See here and here for examples.)

Last year, Johnnie Walker and BBH China used digital technology to resurrect the late Bruce Lee for a commercial for the Blue line targeting '70s generation consumers. The brand worked closely with Mr. Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, and most Chinese consumers saw it as a tribute.

But when the ad was shared via YouTube outside China, some objected to the brand's use of the late star, and it made headlines abroad.

Would Ms. Foo do it over again?

Yes -- but with more due diligence about how the Western world would perceive it, she said. "In hindsight I think what we could have done better was not just put it on YouTube, but actually do how we did in China, which is have a press conference with Shannon talking about the Lee family and the Johnnie Walker collaboration," she said. "It was probably one of the paybacks of being 'big and bold.'"

The Women to Watch questionnaire:
Hometown: Singapore
Hobbies: Yoga and spas
First job: internship at the Scott paper brand.
Ever lived abroad: Besides China, in Bangkok for a year working for Mars.
Best advice you've ever gotten: "People build businesses. Focus on people and the rest will come."
If you had to do it over again: "I'd probably want to own and create and market a luxury brand targeted at females."