Why Are All Whisky Brands The Same?

In our time as a brand firm, we’ve done our fair share of work in the whisky sector. And the one thing that has been consistent across it has been that all the brands seem to be saying more or less the same thing.

Their challenge is how they each can combine a similar set of descriptors to develop a proposition that is meaningfully different from the others. It’s a real challenge and just to be clear, I’m not looking to be critical of them for it. There isn’t an easy answer, but I thought it might be useful to note down some thoughts on the subject and see if there are any decent conclusions to be drawn. 

The motivation to be meaningfully different just isn’t a whisky issue of course, but the whisky category really highlights the challenges that brands have when looking to build perceived value in their business. Lessons from the ancient world of whisky can be applied across the board. 

Firstly, here’s a list of the common elements that are frequently cited as differentiators for whisky brands: 

  • The tallest, smallest, largest stills 
  • Everything’s done by eye 
  • Own water source 
  • The longest/slowest distillation process 
  • Use of / taste of peat 
  • A time served master distiller
  • A team of dedicated craftsmen 
  • Knowledge passed down year after year 
  • An entrepreneurial founder 
  • A community of drinkers who are REAL fanatics 
  • Interesting or unique geography with historical significance (caves, standing stones, haunted buildings) 
  • The local weather 
  • An eagle, stag or person as an emblem 
  • A food pairing chart 
  • Tasting notes 
  • High net worth individual buyers 
  • It’s scarce 
  • It’s expensive 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it all feels so terribly category generic to someone who’s been around the whisky (ware)houses. I suppose this is the inevitable consequence of having a protected product with a registered geographical indication. There’s not a whole lot of diversity in the definitions or processes that make whisky, whisky. So, pick three or four of the generic descriptors and wrap a story around it - job done. The problem is that these descriptors do a brilliant job defining the Scotch Whisky category. Still, the flip side is that this works against creating anything distinctive at an individual brand level. This ends up manifesting itself poorly across channels, from ads at airports to a lacklustre digital presence.

I struggle with this, personally and professionally. If I’m struggling to see the differentiation and shades of nuance between the brands - and I’m being paid to try - what chance does a consumer have? Unless they’re one of the few whisky aficionados who know and seek out the differences between brands, the chances are that they’ll see the brands as entirely interchangeable. 

As I write this, I’m wondering if there’s a French branding company writing a similar article about the challenges of the Champagne category? I would imagine they face similar issues, but somehow (at least to me), it seems free-er in its ability to push against tradition and convention. But anyway… 

So, what are the key things to bear in mind when tackling a whisky branding project?

1. Take a reality check. 
See the category for what it is and accept the reality that many of your competitors are saying almost the same things as you are. Don’t overplay the factors that supposedly set you apart: it’s not enough to think that having a set of slightly odd-shaped stills makes your brand distinctive. 

2. Think beyond the category.
Your whisky may well have a unique location, its own water source and a dedicated team…but what are the foundational values of the business, and how do they resonate? How can you link what makes the brand distinct with something relevant today? Of all the brands in this space, Johnnie Walker’s ‘Keep Walking’ sentiment is a solid platform that’s been built from a clear sense of self. The founder’s original philosophy continues to drive the brand. The philosophy is accessible, and that sense of journey and progress is easily applied to work with contemporary scenarios. 

3. Beware of ‘pushing the boundaries’.
This is a common one. Because everything can feel very samey, clients sometimes come to us asking to push the boundaries - keen to see some new expression or design approach. I totally understand the sentiment, but great care must be taken not to mess too much with the tight category conventions. These cues tell consumers that the product they’re looking at is a whisky brand rather than a wine, champagne or olive oil brand. We’ve had to counsel caution in the past because the design temptation to do something completely innovative and new is strong - particularly to a team of enthusiastic designers. But it’s a fine line and the chances are that unless you are someone like Johnnie Walker, with the budgets to match, you’re not going to be able to change the paradigm of how people view whisky. 

4. Consumers don’t care.
Here at Good, we researched how most consumers buy whisky and the results were chilling, proving that we approached the design task back to front. It turns out that consumers look at the box, not the bottle (they’re probably buying it for someone else anyway); they spend hardly any time choosing; they don’t read the copy, and they don’t understand most of the product features. It was a brutal reminder of just how unengaged consumers are when they’re shopping. This research brought home to me that we (us and the client) approach the role of whisky packaging in the wrong way. Too much time is spent on the bottle, not the box, and too much money is spent on packaging full stop! (There’s a controversial statement for you).

5. Invest in creating fewer, distinctive brand assets to help set you apart.
Sometimes brands create multiple graphic elements to stand out for the consumer. This is especially true in whisky: names, crests, founders, icons, logos, lockups, ages…not to mention colours, copy and imagery. The irony is that this adds to the sea of sameness and means the brand can be overlooked. Successful brands recognise that fewer assets, more carefully curated and invested in over the long term, carve out equity in the consumers’ minds. It’s brandvertising over advertising. 

So, there we have it, an inter-related set of observations about some of the thorny issues around whisky brands and branding. No silver bullets, just a few watchouts to think about if you’re about to take on a whisky branding project.