Jameson: An America's Hottest Brands Case Study

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Tony Pettinato
Jameson has posted double-digit growth for 10 consecutive years, but the Irish whiskey brand's most recent success has come with a greater degree of difficulty.

For one thing, traffic in bars and restaurants is significantly down this year, which would normally pose a huge problem for a brand that draws 40% of its sales "on-premise." But Jameson's sales in bars and restaurants have risen an astonishing 20% -- a payoff from the brand's inroads with the affluent young professionals least affected by the recession.

Then there's the price point. At about $20 for a standard bottle, the brand falls squarely in the high-end premium category being squeezed by consumers, who are either trading down to cheaper stuff en masse, or clinging to super-premium labels as one of the last true indulgences they can still afford. And yet Jameson's retail sales this year were up an astonishing 28% through August, according to Nielsen.

The brand's gravity-defying sales have their roots in a long-running word-of-mouth effort that dates back to the 1990s, when the bulk of the brand's spending went into selling bartenders, wait staff and wholesalers on its merits. It was an arduous task: Irish whiskey had been popular in the U.S. until prohibition, but during that period bootleggers frequently slapped Irish brand names on their illegal booze, earning Irish whiskey a hard-to-shake reputation as harsh and unrefined.

Jeff Agdern
Jeff Agdern, VP-marketing, whiskey & cognac, Pernod Ricard USA
"For a lot of people, bourbon is a little on the rough and rugged side, and Scotch has always had the aura of being an acquired taste," said Jeff Agdern, VP-marketing for whiskey and cognac at parent Pernod Ricard. That middle ground has also been coveted by Canadian whiskey, but Mr. Agdern said that the category lacked the prestige of a premium European import.

The word-of-mouth strategy–originally solely focused in New York -- worked well enough to make the brand big enough to advertise in print and out-of-home venues in other major markets with a campaign focused heavily on taste. That effort has created a national brand that earlier this year launched its first-ever TV campaign, from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York.

"We've achieved a mass that allows us to take advantage of a higher-reach medium like television," Mr. Agdern said. "But this is whiskey, and it requires face-to-face (selling)."

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