Why spirits marketing risks losing sight of the actual spirit - Comment

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As marketing activity becomes more digitally-focussed, visually-orientated and 'Instagrammable', are spirits companies losing sight of the importance of simply delivering a tasting experience? Neil Ridley warns that some brand owners run the risk of losing the plot.

Craigellachie 51 will be given away to consumers, dram by dram

Craigellachie 51 will be given away to consumers, dram by dram

I can clearly remember my first time. There I was, surrounded by about 30 other spirits enthusiasts, in the high-vaulted retail space of a specialist whisky outlet. For a second, it didn't really resonate. Then, when instructed, I raised my glass and took a tiny sip of the Scotch whisky in question.

Right then, I experienced the first of many mini-epiphanies that drew me in deep and set me on the path to truly get under the skin of this amazing spirit. It was, as described by the brand ambassador hosting the tasting, a "liquid to lips" moment; when all the marketing waffle, opinionated guff and personal opinion went out the window and we were left enraptured by what we'd just tasted, desperate to learn more.

Ten years on, I wonder whatever happened to those days. Things seem to have become far more complicated, elaborate, bombastic even. Has the simple age of innocence - just tasting something delicious - gone forever? Can it be revived?

This may sound like a sweeping generalisation, but I do wonder if spirits companies are beginning to lose the plot when it comes to the genuine power of giving consumers that first, seemingly-simple "liquid to lips" moment. Only recently, I wrote about a trip via the confusing world of GTR whiskies and the frustrating fact that most of the brands on offer remain firmly sealed on the shelves, the opportunity to surprise, delight and enrapture consumers lost under a mountain of legalities and layers of red tape.

Last month, I attended two high-profile whisky launches in London - not as a consumer, I grant you, but as a curious journalist and, perhaps more importantly, as the same whisky enthusiast I was over a decade ago. Both launches were diametrically-opposed to each other in their approach to showcasing the actual liquid.

The first – for Diageo's latest limited edition Johnnie Walker blend, this time with Port Ellen - involved dressing the venue as a faraway place: An ethereal mist was piped in, whilst performance poets rattled away on typewriters before the event culminated in a surprise soliloquy from a Hollywood celebrity. The assembled audience of (mostly) bloggers and Instagrammers were obviously captivated by the event's audacity and visual splendour. The whisky itself, however - an impressive blend, served somewhere near the end - was lost in the mist created to effectively highlight it; the last thought on anyone's minds, let alone on their lips.

The other event was quite different. It showcased a 51-year-old single malt from Craigellachie, served up at the very beginning of the evening. Conviviality and conversation was then built around simply tasting the brand's core range, showcasing its lineage and timeline, highlighting exactly where the flavours we were all enjoying come from. (What was more exciting is this wasn't so much a launch, - the Craigellachie expression is not for sale, but is being used as giveaway stock for consumer sampling around the world - but an exercise in putting one's priorities in order.) I, and most other attendees came away with an understanding of exactly what Craigellachie stands for, why its whiskies taste the way they do and, perhaps more importantly, we left excited to tell others to try them for themselves.

Job done.

Of course, I totally understand that in the world of social media presence, brands need to take consumers on a more visually-orientated, all-encompassing 'journey'. What I don't understand, however, is why this should happen at the whisky's expense.

By way of another, more ambitious, example, the recent TV advert by Edrington's Macallan brand is undoubtedly a soaring visual treat, the likes of which hasn't been seen before in a global Scotch activation. The question is whether it actually connects consumers more to the liquid or to the brand world surrounding it.

These things are not one-and-the-same and I worry that this could serve as a hollow aesthetic, unless consumers are given a greater opportunity to get that all important 'liquid to lips' moment off the back of it.

We live in an extremely fast-paced consumerist world right now, where the loudest shout gains the most attention. However, it's just that: A shout. In an instant, that shout has gone, replaced by someone else's.

If this were a party or, lets say, a blind date, I'd have already begun to dismiss and ignore those with the loudest most flamboyant voices, in favour of those who can keep up a stimulating conversation about a subject they are clearly passionate about, at a pace - and a volume - where I can genuinely learn something and become truly enraptured by what they craft, not just what they say or how they say it.

Call me old-fashioned, but I remember dating long before Tinder existed. I urge brand owners not to introduce side-swiping to their marketing efforts.

Click here for more brown spirits commentary from Neil Ridley

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