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Can whisky become a trendy drink for the young?

Can whisky, the quintessential older man’s drink, become a hip, trendy drink for young men and women alike? Yes, if Diageo’s Louise Higgins has her way.

, ET Bureau|
Sep 21, 2010, 08.11 PM IST
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The love for a good scotch whisky comes naturally to Louise Higgins. Not only does she take pride in enjoying what’s traditionally perceived as the favourite tipple for men, but as a marketing professional she is determined to change the perception and attract the fairer sex as potential consumers. And as global marketing director — Scotch portfolio, Diageo Plc, Higgins sure has fellow Scotsmen burning with — make that drowning their envy in scotch whisky.

After all, Higgins heads the scotch portfolio at Diageo, that has over 100 whisky brands, with some legendary brand names like Johnnie Walker, Haig, Black & White and Vat 69 to name a few. “I have always loved marketing and being Scottish, growing up and studying in Scotland, the biggest and most successful export we have is scotch whisky. So in my mind it was always a dream to work one day around the marketing and promotion of scotch whisky,” she says.
Higgins personally oversees around brands at Diageo comprising including VAT 69, Black & White, Haig, Dimple, Buchanan’s and Old Parr.

Globally the scotch market is 86 million cases and whisky market (including Canadian, American, Irish, Scotch, IMFL and other local whiskies) is 275 million cases. Scotch contributes over one-third to the Diageo turnover and is an important product portfolio for the company. France is the largest scotch consuming nation (13 million cases) followed by the US (8 million cases) and the UK (6.5 million cases). Higgins admits that across markets, be it matured or developing, scotch whisky faces competition from beverages like vodka and wine. Among all the spirits, wine is the biggest globally with sales of 3.2 billion cases while vodka stands at 483 million cases.

“The comparison with vodka depends on the country. It is becoming trendier and fashionable, and in some countries where scotch has been around for a long time, it does look old fashioned,” she says. Citing the example of Spain, Higgins says the country has a huge whisky culture. “But the trend is cyclical, so now whisky is out of fashion and rum has become very popular. In some markets such as Mexico there are also local tequilas and vodkas that are popular.”

So to escape the cyclical nature that surrounds drinking, the endeavour, Higgins says, is to expose people to whisky drinking and the various experiments that are possible. “Scotch has a much defined taste and it can be from quite gentle to very strong, smoky and very heavy, and there is a lot of in between. But people don’t know because they have not experimented with it,” says Higgins. “So one can also mix it with Coca-Cola, ginger beer and also make cocktails. There’s a whole plethora of ways of drinking whisky that haven’t been introduced yet,” she says.

While countries like France and Spain have very good understanding of scotches and have huge malts culture, it is developing countries like India and Brazil that excite Higgins. The Indian whisky market is around 120 million cases and the Diageo brands present include Johnnie Walker, VAT 69, Black & White and Haig brands. “Countries like India have a good knowledge of the product, but there is still lot to do. That is the nicest part, because this is where the opportunity is and for a marketing person, that is where the fun is — how you can come and show your brand and develop a personality and show people how to enjoy the taste,” says Higgins.

So in a bid to increase awareness, Diageo is doing a lot of trade and on-ground activities because Higgins says; “it is crucial to get the liquid on lips — you could be a fabulous scotch but if no one has tasted you, nobody would know how fabulous you are. Give people the opportunity to taste it in different settings and on different occasions.” In emerging markets like India, apart from Smirnoff in the vodka segment, the focus is also to create adequate traction for scotch brands like Johnnie Walker and VAT 69. Higgins says that VAT 69 has been present in India since 1920 but there has never been any concerted marketing activity. With the relaunch of VAT 69, a variety of on ground activities are in the offing. For example, whisky drinkers in India prefer spicy snacks with their drink. However, Higgins says that a scotch whisky like VAT 69 goes best with apples as well as aale pak, a Maharashtrian sweetmeat made of ginger. “So we tell people about the blend of this whisky, and the food combination that go with the drink.”

The marketing DNA that Diageo depends on essentially looks at hooking consumers on six emotional need states. They are affiliation, discernment, status, release, independence and aspiration. So a Johnnie Walker consumer, says Higgins, is more status conscious whereas for VAT 69 which was born from a competition of being picked out of 100 blends, the consumer type is about being over the rest; being aspirational. So the mapping allows Diageo to connect with a 25 year old Indian male for VAT 69, although Higgins says that even a 55 year old identifies with the brand because of the macho status associated with it.

In other markets like Spain where J&B is an important brand, a scotch drinker would be young 21 to 25 LDA (of Legal Drinking Age), who likes to enjoy life, has an active night life, goes to party and discos, “this goes well with J&B’s image of being an unconventional brand,” explains Higgins. The masculine nature of the scotch has probably kept women away from trying it, but Higgins thinks it is just a matter of changing the existing perception, “I am a female in the scotch world. Just because its scotch it’s not that it can’t be enjoyed by ladies,” she says.

On her maiden visit to India, Higgins is impressed by the sheer size of the market. “Mumbai has a population of about 17 million and I come from a place which has just 5.5 million people. So Mumbai is multiples of my place within itself,” she laughs. And looking at the India story, everything about the market is double the measure. In short, a Patiala peg.

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