Diageo battles Cognac's control of Chinese New Year

Ads celebrate China's global success

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SHANGHAI--In a ritual honed over decades, an expensive bottle of cognac is the modern gift du jour to present to friends and business associates during Chinese New Year.

The custom benefits the world’s major spirits manufacturers, many of which own pricey cognac brands like Martell and Hennessy, two of the market leaders in China.

But it really rankles the whisky set.

“Even though cognac owns the season right now, Johnnie Walker isn’t ready to concede defeat. In their eyes, they haven’t even got into the battle yet,” said Arto Hampartsoumian, CEO, China at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Shanghai, which handles creative for Diageo’s top whisky brand in the mainland.

Diageo was a latecomer to China, allowing Pernod Ricard to gain an early lead. The French company’s Chivas brand controls about half of total imported whisky sales in China, compared to about 34% for Johnnie Walker.

Over the past two years, Diageo has beefed up its media spending in the mainland, and has settled on Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as the annual holiday is officially known in Communist China, to win market share from arch-rival Chivas as well as from China’s staggering cognac sales.

It faces one major challenge, however. Whisky itself is relatively new in China, and is not viewed as a traditional beverage. It belongs to the party lifestyle of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, mostly men aged 25-35. It is mostly consumed in trendy bars and restaurants, often mixed with green tea, making it more like a hip cocktail beverage, rather than an appropriate tipple for banquet dinners toasting new business deals and celebrating family occasions. It certainly isn’t connected to the traditions associated with Chinese New Year.

But Diageo believes it could be, if it can find a meaningful role for the brand. “For a high-status brand like Johnnie Walker, the established status quo was no reason to turn down the opportunity for the brand in the gifting market at Chinese New Year,” said Pete Heskett, BBH’s head of planning in Shanghai.

The company was “highly mindful” that as a foreign brand, its presence at this most traditional of occasions needed to be highly sensitive, he added. “We needed to find a relevant reason for Johnnie Walker to be involved. Our insight came from considering what the brand’s positioning of ‘inspiring personal progress’ could mean at this time.”

For many Chinese, personal progress is inextricably linked to that of the nation, and Chinese New Year is an occasion where you celebrate this and toast your wishes to progress in the future, said Mr. Heskett. “The sweetspot for Johnnie Walker in communications has been to make a toast to the progress that China and its people are making, and how its achievements are being recognized.”

Following on the success of a smaller Chinese New Year campaign last year, which did grow sales during the heady weeks leading up to the actual holiday, it has created two TV spots this year, both directed by David Tsui from Moviola Productions. The campaign connects Johnnie Walker, and the brand’s “Keep Walking” tagline, with some of China’s biggest success stories over the past year.

The first round of creative, which launched earlier this month, portrayed people around the world awed by the great progress coming from China, culminating in an enourmous fireworks display.

The second spot, which debuts on Feb. 5, dramatizes the idea of toasting those who will be the next Chinese success stories with a montage about a handful of locals who recently earned the global spotlight--track-and-field star Liu Xiang’s world record last July, Ang Lee’s Best Director Academy Award for "Brokeback Mountain," successful space voyages by Chinese astronauts and the business acumen of Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who has made global headlines by thwarting foreign web giants in China like Ebay. The ad ends with Chinese characters written in fireworks that say, “Forever moving forward,” a translation of the “Keep Walking” slogan.

The Chinese New Year campaign is not the first attempt by Diageo to reinterpret its “Keep Walking” theme for China, where whisky is consumed as a celebratory and high energy drink. At the end of 2005, the company broke a fun spot, created by BBH, Singapore, featuring two golfers in a spirited competition.

Last year, it tapped into China’s interest in the World Cup, when huge numbers of Chinese stayed up late into the night over the summer to follow global football teams. A spot called “Tyre,” created by BBH, Shanghai, paid tribute to football players like David Beckham who repeatedly practice free-kicks so they can execute a perfect kick “on the biggest stage of all,” said Mr. Heskett. The ads shows young Chinese practicing their own free-kicks in more humble locales, like into used tires.

Last November, Diageo celebrated the ambition of Chinese men to seize the day and make it on the global stage with a “Runway” campaign. The stylish commercial shot in Hollywood with a cast of hundreds told a (fake) story about three Chinese fashion designers who achieved fame with a global show.

The ending encouraged viewers to literally think big by depicting six giant supermodels towering above and strutting through the streets of the fashion capitals of the world. It was backed up by a massive activation program involving events, like Vivienne Tam’s real-life fashion show in Shanghai, roadshows and the internet.
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