What Hiram desperately wanted was to find a way to rejuvenate Cutty Sark's position in the slumping scotch market.
What Hiram got was virtually unheard of in the liquor category.
Cutty Sark this week embarks on the biggest ever consumer promotion using virtual reality. "Virtual Voyage," a 21/2minute virtual reality experience, will be unveiled May 14 at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago and will spend the next 18 months traveling to 22 cities around the country.
The tour is the centerpiece of a $10 million campaign repositioning Cutty Sark as "the Real McCoy," a reference to Captain William McCoy, who brought the scotch to the U.S. during Prohibition (AA, March 7).
While Cutty Sark's market share has remained steady in recent years, case shipments have slipped 31.4% since 1984, according to The Maxwell Consumer Report.
"We did a total re-evaluation of the brand and said where are we going from here if this continues? We felt we had to do something drastic," said Ron Robillard, VP-marketing at Hiram Walker.
In what's being called the most advanced consumer use of virtual reality ever, players in bars, restaurants and other venues will be able to "sail" a ship from Bermuda to Long Island Harbor. The ship will rock and sway in the ocean while biplanes attack from above.
Those not playing the game will be able to watch the action on two TV monitors.
For Cutty Sark, it's a risky-and costly-strategy. The virtual reality game alone cost $1 million to develop. And while virtual reality has been mimicked in TV spots for Honda cars and Jolly Rancher candy, Cutty Sark is only the second consumer product to use a virtual reality game in a promotion.
But if it wasn't for Bubble Yum, which last year took virtual reality to malls across the country, Hiram might not have even considered the technology.
"We knew about virtual reality what most people know about virtual reality, which is that it's out there and it's an interesting technology," said Dean Scaros, president of Cutty Sark agency Scaros & Casselman, Stamford, Conn.
"If our strategy is to make Cutty evocative of adventure and individualism, is there a way rather than tell people about it that they could experience it?" Mr. Scaros remembers agency staffers thinking while preparing a pitch for the repositioning assignment last spring.
With that thought in mind, the agency began researching virtual reality and ended up at the doorstep of Horizon Entertainment, the St. Louis company that created the Bubble Yum experience for Nabisco Foods Group.
What Scaros did next may have helped it win the account, formerly held by Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York.
The agency drew up storyboards for the "Virtual Voyage" idea, leased a virtual reality machine from Horizon and brought it to the pitch at Hiram headquarters in Detroit last June.
"We presented the idea of virtual reality," Mr. Scaros said. "But the payoff, the kicker, was `We don't just want to tell you about this; we'd like you to experience it.' We brought the client to another room, where the virtual reality machine was set up, and actually had them experience it."
While Hiram liked the idea, deciding to use it for one of its brands was still difficult.
"I'm an older fellow," said Mr. Robillard, who's 56. "When I first heard the idea, I had to read up on what virtual reality was."
Mr. Robillard admitted he had cold feet about such a radical marketing move.
"When you build a $13 million marketing program, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling by spending $5 million on magazines [as Cutty Sark had] and you see your ad in a book."
Nevertheless, Scaros won the assignment in late summer and in November was named agency of record on the account.
The agency signed Horizon to oversee development of the virtual reality game, set construction and hardware deployment. Horizon in turn contracted GreyStone Technology, a San Diego virtual reality software company, to design the experience.
"It was a lot tougher than the usual storyboard, because storyboards developed for TV are developed linearly," Mr. Scaros said. "We had to develop storyboards that accounted for a 360-degree field of vision."
Working with Scaros was also a challenge for Horizon.
"We went back dozens of times getting the storyline to be just right," said Gregg Rotenberg, director of special projects at Horizon. "That's the hardest part of creating a custom experience."
The Cutty Sark job may have been the perfect assignment for GreyStone, which claims several former U.S. Navy officers on its staff and devotes much of its business to designing virtual reality experiences for military training.
"If you would have told me that I would be taking all of this prior Naval experience and devoting it to an entertainment experience, I would have laughed at you," said Dave Klugh, director of communications at GreyStone.
But GreyStone took its job seriously. Staffers researched the physics of sailing ships-how ships react in the open ocean, how they react closer to land, how the wind would affect the motion of the vessel.
GreyStone also used a technique called texture mapping to add to the realism of the experience. Instead of drawing a ship's rail and coloring it in, GreyStone took a photo of an actual railing and "wrapped" it around the virtual rail.
GreyStone even used ship stability and buoyancy information from the U.S. Navy, said Mr. Klugh, a retired Navy lieutenant commander.
"What you see when you put on the head-mounted display is a very, very realistic feeling of what it looks like and feels like to be on a pitching and rolling sailing vessel," he said.
Realistic enough to get seasick?
"They may be getting sick from their activity in a bar, but they're not going to get sick from this experience," Mr. Klugh assured.
Contributing to the realism: top-of-the-line equipment. "Virtual Voyage" operates on a $200,000 Silicon Graphics workstation, 10 times more expensive than the computer that ran Bubble Yum's virtual reality experience, Mr. Rotenberg said.
Hiram Walker is leasing the hardware from Horizon.
"There's a lot of money invested in the equipment, and the tours are not inexpensive to put on," Mr. Rotenberg said. "But hopefully they provide tremendous value to the clients, so they're worth the price they pay."
After the Chicago unveiling, the two "Virtual Voyage" units will make stops in California, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and other states. Consumers will be asked to make a $2 donation to participate; the money funds the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Foundation, a non-profit organization.
While virtual reality is sure to draw attention to Cutty Sark, there's no guarantee it will help sales. Cutty Sark is the No. 6 scotch brand with a 3.7% share of the market.
Still, the interactivity is appealing to Hiram Walker.
"This is a one and one relationship with consumer," Mr. Robillard said. "You can run four-color print and maybe you can reach someone, but if you can capture a consumer's attention for 3 minutes, you can make more of an impression."