Diageo turns to stylish cinema to promote Johnnie Walker

During frenetic TV year full of Olympic ads, half the films will only run online

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SHANGHAI -- To attract hip, urban Chinese whisky drinkers, Diageo will introduce the first in a series of TV spots for its Johnnie Walker whisky brand in Greater China this weekend.

The campaign continues the premium liquor brand’s existing philosophy of striving for progress; Diageo has retained the “Keep Walking” tagline that has helped turn Johnnie Walker into the largest Scotch whisky brand in the world.

But Diageo has created a series of stylish and atmospheric 60-second ads for the Chinese market that look more like short films than TV spots. The approach departs from its previous advertising in the mainland -- and alcohol marketers there in general -- that traditionally relies on images of a drink in a glass or bottle set within a high-status context.

The U.K. spirits giant hopes the content-oriented campaign will expand the brand connection between Johnnie Walker and its target audience, white-collar workers and entrepreneurs aged 25-35 in China’s first- and second-tier cities.

Although whisky remains popular among older Chinese businessmen as a way to build guanxi, or business relationships, with colleagues and business partners, Scotch drinkers there tend to be younger than they are in western markets. They consume it in trendy bars and discos, for example, either mixed as cocktails mixed with soft drinks or green tea, or through bottles purchased by groups of friends as they dance the night away.

Competing with Chivas, Suntory
Diageo hopes a brand-building approach more focused on entertainment rather than hard-core advertising will help it cut through the China’s fragmented, cluttered ad market. With the Olympics coming up this year in Beijing, TV ad spending will reach an all-time high in China.

Also, spirit marketers in general have stepped up spending in China as the economy and staff salaries steadily climb.

Johnnie Walker Black Label and Red Label brands are engaged in a fierce battle for market share in China. Pernod Ricard's Chivas Regal 12-year-old blend is the longtime category leader in China. But Johnnie Walker is closing the gap with double-digit growth in China over the past couple of years.

Some parts of the campaign will run across Asia, but it was created for Taiwan and, in particular, China, which became one of the top 10 whisky markets in the world in 2006. Sales of whisky have increased by about 30% annually over the last five years in China, and it is still one of the fastest-growing markets.

Scotch brands also compete against premium brands of baijiu, a traditional Chinese white spirit; Japan's largest whiskey maker, Suntory; Hennessy and Martell cognacs; and even other high-end spirits, such as vodka. All are gaining popularity as China’s rising middle class explores foreign brands and products that were once inaccessible.

“Diageo is facing intense competition and fighting for top-of-mind with a lot of brands and products. We had to find an interesting way of creating that awareness,” said Arto Hampartsoumian in Shanghai, CEO, China of Diageo's creative agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

BBH created the campaign with OgilvyOne, even though Diageo moved its digital business late last year to AKQA. This campaign was already under way when the digital business was moved. GroupM's Maxus division handles media planning and buying.

Focus on friendship
The storyline of the new campaign centers a pact made between friends to support each other’s progress towards achieving their ambitions and dreams.

A young successful architect harboring dreams of becoming a film director is spurred toward his goal by his business partners. In the first installment, they fire him from his position at the firm and support him as he confronts the challenges of writing and directing his first film. In each additional episode, viewers watch the former architect struggle to succeed in his new career path.

For Johnnie Walker consumers, Mr. Hampartsoumian said, progress is often about brotherhood, particularly between friends, due to China’s one-child policy in recent decades. “In Asia, achievements and the way you go about achieving them has a greater social dimension than in does in the West. Friends and family play a larger role.”

“We didn’t change the overall brand strategy. Johnnie Walker is always a brand that stands for progress and the ‘Keep Walking’ message. But this approach has evolved it to resonate more with consumers in China by making it more about personal progress. We are trying to create a more emotional bond, not just tell them this is a famous brand so they should buy it and drink it,” Mr. Hampartsoumian said.

The first spot in the series aired in Taiwan earlier this month, and will debut in the mainland on March 1. Four more spots will continue the story at regular intervals until the end of the year. The first, third and final fifth episode will run on TV as well as the internet.

Two episodes only online
But the second and fourth will only run online, first on Diageo's websites in China (keepwalking.johnniewalker.com.cn) and Taiwan (www.keepwalking.tw), published in simplified and traditional characters, respectively, alongside extras like widgets that web surfers can download for their computers.

Diageo hopes interest in the storyline will “compel viewers who catch one episode on TV to go online to satisfy their curiosity as the story progresses,” explained Pete Heskett, BBH’s head of strategic planning for China in Shanghai.

The episodes will also run on YouTube-like online video sites such as Youku.com and Tudou.com, popular among tens of millions of surfers who fall into Diageo's target group. China is the world's second-largest internet market with more than 210 million users, mainly young adults in urban areas. Diageo will seed the films to other websites and portals, although Mr. Hampartsoumian believes web surfers in China will like the series enough to upload it independently.

Ads are also running in print, mainly magazine ads created with the same color treatment and Johnnie Walker’s trademark black and gold colors as the TV spots. Also, a 15-second version of the first film is airing as a trailer on DVDs of two Chinese-language hit films, Tou Ming Zhuang ("Warlords") and Jie Jie Hao ("Assembly"). While sales of official, relatively expensive DVDs in China remain low, the trailer reportedly is running with more common pirated versions of the film as well.

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