World Whiskies Conference 2010

World Whiskies Conference 2010

Chris Brook-Carter is on his way home from this year's World Whiskies Conference, returning as he arrived, by train thanks to the now-infamous ash cloud. Seeing as it's a five-hour journey, he's got plenty of time to ruminate on what, historically, is a key date in the global whisky diary.

As an aside, I don't have a great track record in getting back from Glasgow by air. I almost missed the birth of my son four years ago thanks to a ridiculously-delayed flight and, two years ago, also after this show, I stood outside Glasgow Airport in the freezing cold for two hours as a fire in the airport's Burger King outlet  was extinguished – we all thought at the time that we were in the middle of the latest al-Qaeda bomb plot, but it was nothing more than the actions (or inactions) of a sleeping burger turner.

There's little doubt that the volcanic ash took the shine of this year's conference: Visitor numbers were down by about 50% on last year by my reckoning, which is a real shame as the content and debate were as strong as any previous year, if not better.

I have said it before, but I'll say it again: It amazes me that this conference isn't better supported by the industry. It's not like there are numerous other events of this type where the whisk(e)y industry has the chance to get together, network and thrash out ideas about the latest challenges facing the sector. It's also a great chance to meet experts in other fields who come to speak, with often very relevant insights into our industry that otherwise wouldn't be heard.

One executive from a smaller Scotch player suggested to me that the corporate culture at the big players meant they simply didn't like to be told there were problems with their strategies, outlooks or marketing. It certainly seems strange to me that there were so many brands unrepresented there.

If I could sum up yesterday's theme in one word it would be 'innovation' – sometimes the lack of it, but also an understanding that the whisk(e)y industry does get more right than it sometimes allows itself recognition for – the success of malts and small batch Bourbons over the last decade are a case in point.

Top of yesterday's programme was a talk from James Espey, formerly chairman of Chivas Brothers and one of the men behind the original success of brands such as Baileys and Malibu. He also launched the Classic Malt series whilst at IDV - the forerunner to Diageo for those of you younger than me - and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. He is currently chairman of The Last Drop Distillers.

Espey's presentation was quite the whistle-stop tour of drinks marketing over the last 30 years, coloured by personal anecdotes amid an ocean of soundbites. Largely, the talk bemoaned a lack of courage within the sector to launch new products, a problem he largely laid at the door of the current corporate culture.

However, he did admit: “New brand development isn't for the feint hearted. It's about courage and tenacity. In corporate life, volcanic ash is everywhere. Trust me. Why do you think 90% of new brands fail?”

Following on from that was Richard Williams, founding director of the marketing agency Williams Murray Hamm, who is credited with the baked bean packaging of Hovis Bread. Williams focussed on the lack of imagination in brand building across the consumer goods sector – referring time and again to “karaoke behaviour” - arguing that brand owners are afraid to do anything different from one another.

“My view is it is the same in whisky,” he said. “You have the brand name, a picture of the distillery and an age statement on the bottle. Nobody is trying to say anything different.”

It seems strange to wrap an industry over the knuckles that is delivering annual total exports of GBP3.13bn (US$4.83bn) and growing at 3% a year. However, the consequences he pointed out for such behaviour certainly resonated, particularly in mature markets such as the UK or Spain.

The impersonator is never as good as the original, he warned, and imitation devalues the category and creates consumers with little brand loyalty as each product says the same thing to them. Certainly this rings true of the floundering standard market for Scotch in the UK.

Next up was Mark Izatt, director of experiences and enrichment at Nokia's ultra premium mobile phone service Vertu, whose thoughts on how to sell a super premium experience piqued the interest of those in the audience riding, or trying to ride, the wave at this end of the sector. As well as talking good sense about taking care what you put in front of these top-end consumers, he was also a welcome voice of reason, after a morning of soul searching, in insisting that the whisky industry was already getting much of this right.

The afternoon included a presentation from just-drinks, on our state of the nation confidence survey, more of which will appear on the site later. I could try to sum up all that went on in my own words but I think it is best left to those that gave the presentations themselves. So here are a few of the best quotes of the day.

James Espey, chairman of The Last Drop Distillers

“Research is an aid to judgement, not a substitute for judgement. In the liquor industry, you have got to have a strong gut feel.”

“Baileys is the biggest fluke - the research said it would fail, so we hid the research.”

“A global brand is nothing more than a local brand replicated many times over. My advice to anyone launching a brand is don't rush to too many countries too quickly.”

“There has never been a serious spirits brand and certainly not a whisky brand that has been built in less than ten years. Never.”

“I think this recession is the best thing that could have happened to this country. The arrogance, the short termism, the greed were killing creativity.”

“Diageo is a mighty funnel of liquid.”

Richard Williams, founding director, Williams Murray Hamm

“The world today is all about karaoke – doing a bad impression of someone else's great original – and I think that's so true of so much branding today.”

“My view is it is the same in whisky. You have the brand name, a picture of the distillery and an age statement on the bottle. Nobody is trying to say anything different.”

“The real problem is that we are terribly frightened to fail. But the real successes, the Sonys and Amazons, have also had catastrophic failures.”