COMMENT: Is brand 'Scotch' due a makeover?

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It takes a brave man to question the assumptions of a business that, to all intents and purposes, is riding the crest of a wave, but that is what happened in Scotland this month, Chris Brook-Carter reports.

Several of the Scotch Whisky industry's leading lights met at Drummuir Castle for an independent working party to debate the way their category is meeting the challenges of a future now more interesting thanks to new Scotch Whisky recruits in India and China.

This group was picking up 'the gauntlet' thrown down by just-drinks in its report on Blended Scotch Whisky delivered at the second World Whiskies Conference in Glasgow in April.

Given a wave of investment in new distilling capacity by leading players like Diageo, was another 'whisky loch' looming if the enthusiasm of drinkers in the so-called BRIC markets lagged somewhat behind the capacity build-up? Furthermore, while the current industry optimism is undoubtedly a welcome contrast to a couple of gloomy decades, is life really looking all that rosy in the standard segment where the image of Scotch Whisky is still - in some markets - an issue?

Scotch has been bathing in the glow of a series of healthy figures and news reports recently. Malts and premium blends are adding a dynamic punch to the category, emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil and Russia are showing unprecedented levels of growth and sales are placing a satisfying strain on stocks - to such an extent that millions of pounds are being spent to boost production.

Faced with that sort of outlook then, you could forgive us all for a collective shrug whilst asking: "Challenge? What challenge?"

It surprised me, then, that, whilst I certainly witnessed a high level of creative and highly animated discussion from amongst the working party about how best to move forward, there was also broad agreement that the good news may just be masking some of the problems this industry is facing.

Many of the issues we highlighted in our Blended Scotch Report, which we first aired at this year's World Whiskies Conference, were picked up on - the potential fragility of the BRIC markets for one.

But it was the underperformance by some standard and value blends in Scotch's traditional markets that really sparked debate in April. After all, this, despite all the successes in malts and at the premium end, is the bread and butter of the business and in my opinion - and the figures support this - it is faltering.

There is little doubt that this is not an all-encompassing malaise, with a number of individual brands performing well. But, as far as the category of standard blends go, these successes are either not creating the halo effect you'd hope for the lesser brands or, in the case of Johnnie Walker, have transcended the category altogether.

Even the an incorrigible optimist might admit that the industry is clearly not taking full advantage of this robust period of growth and really leveraging its success to build the equity of the category rather than individual brands.

But the pessimist's outlook should be given credence too. And that is that, whilst Scotch bathes in the glow of its successes, booming sales for the likes of JW Red are papering over cracks that may have serious implications for the industry going forward.

'Scotch' has the potential to be a powerful 'brand' all of its own and create value that companies without the marketing muscle of Diageo or Chivas can really latch on to - think here Champagne or, indeed, Bordeaux. Perhaps, once upon a time, Scotch did pack that sort of punch, but to my mind the sector has lost its ability to extract value on a generic level at the standard end.

The job of the working party is far from over - it's remit is to present a white paper at next year's World Whiskies Conference on the outcome of its debate. just-drinks will continue to be a key player in the process and looks forward to delivering you the results.

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