What's the best way to market spirits brands to female consumers? - Comment

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Is gender becoming an all-consuming issue in whisky? just-drinks' brown spirits commentator, Neil Ridley, certainly hopes not.

Brown-Forman launched this print ad for Jack Daniels in the US earlier this month

Brown-Forman launched this print ad for Jack Daniel's in the US earlier this month

When Diageo US division announced its latest limited edition Johnnie Walker offering late last month, I must confess to having felt mixed emotions. Here's a brand, after all, that has steadfastly marched Scotch whisky forward for over 150 years, sashaying effortlessly from innovation to innovation; from the striking symbolism of Robert Carlyle's Man Who Walked Around The World film, to the recent tie-in with Denis Villeneuve's astounding Blade Runner sequel. And, that's not to mention the experimental, highly-flavoursome Blenders' Batch series of releases, all of which have helped to move the spirit out of the rustic dark ages and into the Millennial spotlight.

It comes as some surprise, then, to see Diageo take the clunky, backward step of releasing a relabelled Jane Walker Black Label, to coincide with International Women's Day.

And yet, given the public kicking the group has subsequently received over the last few weeks, I'll admit to feeling a degree of sympathy for Diageo. What was no doubt intended as being an attempt to heighten awareness and raise money for two worthy non-profit organisations - Monumental Women and She Should Run, the latter supporting the aspirations of women wishing to enter politics in the US - has been overshadowed by a few wayward comments made by a Diageo executive during an interview with Bloomberg about Scotch being an intimidating category for women and using the project to 'invite women into the brand'.

The net result of people's rancour, then, is not entirely unexpected.

From the perspective of the female palate, Scotch is not an intimidating product. Far from it. During the hundreds of tastings I have either hosted or attended as an enthusiast, what's clear is that there's no discernible difference between the way men and women interact with the spirit. Put a good whisky in front of an enthusiastic audience, and it will unite and excite the palates of both sexes in equal measure.

However, the actions of a few small-minded, ignorant men - the type who still bafflingly question why brands have female ambassadors, or cringingly chortle vocally or make inappropriate comments when they see a woman hosting a tasting at a whisky event - has become an unacceptable, industry-wide issue; one that major brands need to stop turning a blind eye to, both from an internal and consumer perspective. One would hope that, given time, such outdated sexism will become just that - outdated - and that both sexes can get on with the business of enjoying a brilliantly-diverse and vibrant spirits category, together.

Despite the charitable angle of the project - US$1 from the sale of each bottle, up to a total of $250,000, will be donated to the causes mentioned - the whole thing feels like a missed opportunity; one where the commercial angle to encourage more women to drink Johnnie Walker lurks ominously in the background. Perhaps not as glaringly commercial as the awful idea to release a whisky glass especially suited to women - incredibly, this very announcement did arrive in my inbox recently, before being subsequently herded to my trash bin - but nonetheless, clumsy indeed.

The bottom line is that drinking and enjoying whisky (or any other spirit for that matter) should never be about one's gender. By polarising the sexes, we create even greater sexual segregation, exclusivity, extremism and, ultimately, unhappiness in something that is supposed to be a convivial and, above all else, inclusive pastime.

The reaction from the wider industry has been swift and decisive. The #OurWhisky social media campaign, set up by two female industry figures, aims to champion the richness of the subject regardless of gender, colour or sexual preference and has so far been well received. However, perhaps the most powerful statement has come in the form of an online campaign launched by Brown Forman; an activation that, by way of a response, must make for slightly painful viewing for Diageo, which employs some of the most talented whisky makers on the planet, a great many of whom happen to be women.

It depicts two identical bottles of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey side-by-side with the caption 'His' and 'Hers'. As obvious as the image may appear, for me, it marks a stark contrast to some areas of our business that continue to overthink the issue of marketing to women.

The answer is simple. Don't.

Sectors: Spirits

Companies: Diageo, Johnnie Walker

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