CBC: If you ask me... Scotch whisky

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Last year, just-drinks took part in a working party, set up following the World Whiskies Conference in 2007, to look at how to raise the profile of Scotch whisky. At this year's conference, held in Glasgow last month, the results of that working party saw the light of day for the first time. Chris Brook-Carter takes a closer look at the findings.

Here is a proposal that will unquestionably put the backs up of at least half of the marketing managers out there. We think you should take your already stretched marketing budgets and pledge a not insubstantial proportion of your funds to a generic body that will help promote your competitors.

There, I knew that would go down well.

But as confrontational a stand as that seems, that is exactly what the 'Working Party into Scotch Image and Innovation', which took place late last year and whose findings were presented to the industry last month, is proposing.

After two days at Drummuir in November and a further day in Glasgow in January, the working party - which included representatives from many of the sector's leading players as well as Ian Buxton of the World Whiskies Conference and myself representing just-drinks and the media - concluded that there is a real need to develop a vision for 'Brand Scotch' and that the best vehicle for this is potentially a Scotch Whisky Marketing Board.

Furthermore, it was our view that the SWA and representatives from the industry should set up a working party, remitted to review and answer the question of how to build a strategy to achieve this goal.

In private, the conclusions of the working party had already been presented to some other members of the industry earlier in the year and it would be remiss of me to suggest that they were received with universal support. After all, there is little doubt that generic marketing in drinks is a divisive issue. For every 'Brand Australia' that has succeeded, there is another category that has stumbled at the first hurdle and its brands have suffered as a result.

Generic marketing can appear toothless, particularly for those companies whose brands have a strong identity already. Moreover, on current form, many asked whether there was really any need for such a campaign. Life in Scotch is largely good. Growth in the BRIC markets is encouraging, new production plants are being built and value is outstripping volume growth.

But, that is not to say there are not concerns going forward and many of Scotch's successes are papering over its cracks. Market saturation in the category's traditional markets have driven a decline in prices in real terms at the standard end, which has become commoditised. The category is failing to recruit in these markets and its image is weak.

Scotch is undoubtedly going from strength to strength at the premium end, but what often gets lost in all the back-slapping that accompanies this success is that standard blended Scotch still accounts for 72% of the category volume. There are grave implications for the category, from stocks to sales, should this vast sector fail, which it is doing in key mature markets already.

"Ah yes, but it is brands that can drag this sector out of its malaise," I hear you cry. Yes, certainly brands have a part to play. But the difficulty is that the problem markets are being ignored by the large brands, who, quite reasonably, are focussing efforts where they can make decent margins. Scotch's slowdown in places like the UK, Spain and France has seen a commoditisation of the category, stripping it of its intrinsic added-value, making it comparable to standard vodka.

There is little doubt that some of the marketing created by the big brands is outstanding. But what, if any, effect is it having on the health of the category as a whole? Do many of the adverts for the large brands even mention the word Scotch? Or, have these brands, such as Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal, transcended the category, resulting in their ability to deliver a "halo effect" being diminished considerably?

(It is interesting to note that, in market research presented to the Working Party last year by an independent agency, a number of respondents believed Johnnie Walker was made in Tennessee.)

In short, standard blended Scotch is in a weak position vis a vis its competitors, such as rum and vodka. And, despite the labour and time intensive production process that goes into making every bottle of Scotch, consumers view standard Scotch as a frighteningly ordinary product.

The question is, can a united industry deliver a strategy to solve this problem? The belief of the Working Party is that it can.

Scotch's quality and uniqueness is unquestioned by those who work with the product but, as an industry, have we largely failed to communicate that message? Brands, understandably, focus on building their image, but no one is communicating the category and product values that set Scotch apart from vodka, for example.

A number of questions remain unresolved, particularly at the practical level. How will this be funded? Should the SWA be involved? What messages will engage consumers? It seems clear to me that there is work to be done for the long-term health of Scotch whisky.

Of course it's easy for me to sit here and say all this because it's not my money, but I whole-heartedly believe this is an issue the industry must face up to and at the very least discuss further within the confines of a working party with some rigour further.

just-drinks will do what it can to support the process as it has done so far, and on that front we'd like to hear your opinions on the matter with a view to publishing them later in the month.

Email editor@just-drinks and let us know.

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