Leading figures in the Scotch whisky industry are to form a pan-industry working party to investigate the question of image and innovation in Scotch. The debate will be led by the World Whisky Conference (WWC) and is being supported by just-drinks.

The aim of the working party, which will meet in Scotland in September, is to establish a group of no more than 11 individuals, representing a range of disciplines and viewpoints to brainstorm the questions of the image of Scotch Whisky (especially low and medium end blends) and the opportunities and constraints on innovation.

The group will issue a short report as a working paper to be circulated round the industry via the WWC website, direct email and through just-drinks.com

The findings will then be presented at WWC 2008 (15-16 April 2008), with a revised set of conclusions being published following the Conference.  It is hoped that these would then be taken back by delegates to their own businesses and debated more widely within the industry.

Director of the World Whiskies Conference Ian Buxton told just-drinks: "Feedback from last April's conference clearly showed our delegates wanted longer to debate these critical issues. With the unique working party we hope to fulfil that need, tabling a report to the World Whiskies Conference 2008 for further and deeper consideration."

"The Working Party extends the reach of the Conference and further establishes it as the global whisky summit.  Senior industry figures are going to lead a debate which will generate a positive discussion on Scotch's future."

"I welcome further offers to participate in this exciting industry-wide initiative."

Those already signed up to participate in the working party include, Ken Robertson of Diageo, Ian Buxton of World Whiskies Conference, Neil Boyd ex-John Dewar & Sons, Alan Gray of Sutherlands, Charles Allen of Diageo, Chris Brook-Carter of just-drinks and Steven Sturgeon of William Grant & Sons.

Ken Robertson of Diageo told just-drinks: "There are potential issues with the image of standard Scotch and perhaps the wider image of Scotch and I felt that in a time when the industry was optimistic about its future, it was a good opportunity to see if image is a problem. This working party could shed some light on this, and if there are issues we can take steps to rectify them.

He added: "It does not seem to be inhibiting growth at the moment, but it's something worth looking at."

Despite the growth of emerging markets, most Scotch groups are predicting that the blended category will remain pretty much flat over coming years.  According to just-drinks Blended Scotch Report 2007, the industry will see a rise of 1.5% per annum up to 2012.

"Some markets will grow faster than that, but others will, as ever, pull that figure down. The rises in China, Brazil, Russia and, conceivably, India are more than likely to be offset by continuing falls in the mature markets," the report said.

The report suggests that the issue of how to attract new consumers in mature markets such as the UK, France and Japan, which has vexed the industry for more than a decade, remains and no convincing solution has been discovered. In markets such as the UK and France an over-reliance on discounting has only exacerbated the problems for the blended category.

The underlying trends of unfashionability and irrelevance are also seen as affecting the complex US market. Moreover, the issue of stagnation and decline is now being faced by brands in the once fast-expanding markets of Southern Europe, notably Spain, where a new generation is proving more resistant to the charms of blended Scotch and is being seduced by rum.

All the brand marketers interviewed for the report agreed that in mature markets the issue of image was paramount, but the report identifies some diverging views on what image blended Scotch should project in order to foster growth, and discusses in depth the strategic choices facing Scotch whisky marketers in this regard.