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Published:  23 July, 2008

It's almost 100 years since the Johnnie Walker logo first strode into our lives, in his top hat and breeches, and he remains an unmistakable symbol of Scotch whisky worldwide. Tom Bruce-Gardyne charts his journey

The original Johnnie Walker had been dead for over 50 years when his grandson sat down for lunch with the commercial artist, Tom Browne, in a London restaurant in 1909. At some point Browne, who had previously worked on campaigns for Teacher's Highland Cream, leant over and sketched a small figure on the back of the menu. It may have looked more like a lion tamer than the Kilmarnock grocer who founded the family business, but it went on to become one of the most powerful icons the drinks industry has ever produced. In terms of global recognition, the striding man is right up there with the sloping script of Coca-Cola. In fact the world's most popular brand of Scotch whisky is now sold in over 200 markets, making Johnnie Walker marginally more available than the world's favourite soft drink. Yet its importance to the brand owners goes beyond that and the 10 million cases sold each year. It is, to quote Kyndal's Master Blender, Richard Patterson, the lifeblood of Diageo'. Somehow, if Johnnie Walker was to stumble badly, the whole company would start to crack. For Stephen Morley, global brand director at Johnnie Walker, the striding man logo was established early on as a symbol of progress, as the pioneering spirit of the Walker family'. Yet, on the face of it, I suggest that top hat and tails sounds an unlikely combination in 2003? Well we're obviously pretty sensitive to that. The dandy has evolved quite a bit in his look. He has slimmed down and he's more silhouette in style.' He also performed a neat pirouette recently to point him in the right direction. Before the marketing team launched the 100m Keep Walking' campaign in 1999, they realised that Johnnie Walker had spent much of his life walking backwards, from right to left across the page. According to Morley, the logo is contemporary', modern' and progressive', though perhaps timeless' would be a better description. Either way, he's obviously in no danger of early retirement. We see no sign that this is dowdy, old-fashioned and of yesteryear.'

The final piece Designing the logo was the last step in perfecting the packaging - the square-shaped bottle and slanting label had long been in place. With customers already calling what was then Old Highland Whisky' by the colour of its label, it was a simple matter in 1909 to register the name Johnnie Walker Black Label'. What was a stroke of genius, however, was simultaneously launching a younger, lighter blend aimed at whisky-and-soda drinkers, in packaging that was identical in all but colour. Having Red Label and Black Label acted as a very simple colour code for consumers to use to decode price and quality', says Morley. There is also a lot of evidence that consumers shop perceptually - first through colour, as with the flash of red on the Coca-Cola tin.' This idea of using colour to create a whole family of whiskies inside the one brand got Johnnie Walker off to a tremendous start. What it actually means is that a consumer can drink Red Label on more informal social occasions, and when he's feeling a bit more special and wants to treat himself, he'll probably elect for Black Label, and he can then move on through to Gold and Blue for some real luxury. To have that journey within the brand established early on was, I think, a masterpiece which established its pre-eminence,' says Morley. It also made the advertising extremely efficient. Because consumers of Red and Black are first and foremost Johnnie Walker drinkers, you can promote both brands at the same time. Johnnie Walker was always widely available, and was already on sale in 120 countries by 1920. Today, one of the dilemmas for Morley is that the brand is so ubiquitous, getting a geographic focus doesn't often help us - we tend to use a consumer-type focus'. In 1925, the company directors agreed to come under the great DCL umbrella. However, they did not start off on top and, according to memos at Price Waterhouse who arranged the deal, the Walker directors were most upset about their lack of influence. After the merger only three of them were invited onto the DCL board, compared to eight from Buchanan-Dewar. It was now part of a growing stable of brands, and though it was hugely important to the Distillers company from the outset, it was eclipsed for a long time by Haig at home and by Buchanan's Black & White overseas. Strangely, no one at Diageo appears to know quite when Johnnie Walker steamed into the lead as the number one best-seller, but my guess would be some time in the 1960s. As always with Johnnie Walker, it all depends whether you count it as one brand or two. Sales of Johnnie Walker doubled during the 1970s, and by 1980 it was the company's undisputed flagship brand with around 17% of total Scotch exports. For those not on the bandwagon, life must have felt lonely at times - like supporting Manchester City in a world obsessed with Man United. When Jonathan Driver took over Classic Malts, he was told, supposedly tongue-in-cheek, that if he stole so much as one case from the sales of Black Label he would be sacked on the spot. Was the same friendly advice', this time concerning Red Label, given to newly appointed brand managers at Black & White and VAT 69? I think there's going to be a natural ebb and flow that takes place,' says Morley, when I ask whether Johnnie Walker's success was at the expense of its old stable-mates at DCL. I suspect these were brands that were competing with Johnnie Walker or J&B in certain markets and a choice was made.' Having said that, he's keen to stress that other brands like Buchannan's, Dimple and Old Parr are very high priority brands in their regions'.

Fluctuating fortunes Thirty years ago, Johnnie Walker Red Label was the second most popular Scotch in the UK, then in 1977 it was pulled from the shelves to protect distributors on the continent from a potential flood of cheap, parallel imports. When it returned six years later, it found that consumers had moved on. Morley won't comment on whether the 1977 decision was a bad mistake, except to say that the internal view is that at the moment Bells is a very strong brand and so we wouldn't see a role for Johnnie Walker Red label in the UK'. Therefore the British ad campaign this Christmas, which included TV, is all about Black Label, which accounts for all but 3,000 of the estimated 45,000 cases sold here. It is part of long seeding strategy', in a market that's beginning to polarise', says Morley. The malt whisky category is obviously quite buoyant, and people are beginning to appreciate the subtleties of blending, through the work that Bell's is doing in its advertising.' Far more important is the US, a market Johnnie Walker has never managed to lead. So far the Keep Walking' campaign seems to be having mixed fortunes in the US. The word on the street is that it works for Black Label but not Red Label where, according to International Wine & Spirit Record (IWSR) figures, sales stood at 795,000 in 2001 down 6% on 1999. Morley won't discuss numbers, but adds, what I can say about the States is that Johnnie Walker Black is growing very, very strongly'. We shall have to wait until May/June to see whether IWSR backs up his claims for 2002. Keep Walking' is Diageo's first-ever global marketing blitz, and is, says Morley, completely focused on a pretty universal need, which is to move forward in life'. But surely the problem with a one-size-fits-all approach, is that it's liable to be a bit bland, homogenised and perhaps too Western', considering that the real potential for growth is in the developing markets like Asia? Absolutely, that would be the issue if we were to determine we needed one piece of advertising that was appropriate for all consumers, but we don't. We recognise that what inspires me to move forward in life as an individual in Greece or the UK, is completely different to what inspires me to move forward in Asia or Latin America. At the moment we've probably got 15 concurrent different executions within "Keep Walking".' Morley accepts the original message was quite narrow and uniform, but says it has been broken up to suit different markets over the past two years. Some argue that the personal achievement theme is out of step with changing consumer values as the me' generation matures. Morley recognises that people's perception of progress varies enormously from one culture to the next. If you're coming from an emerging world where there's probably a polarity of wealth, our target audience is 25- to 35-year-old men who will be striving to get a bigger job, a better house - the trappings of wealth - because frankly those things are in short supply. However, in more mature economies, in Europe certainly, I think people want to progress and grow as individuals.' In other words, people's personal milestones might vary from a new Mercedes in Manila to a more balanced lifestyle in Madrid, but they are still symbols of progress which Johnnie Walker can tap into. The brand also sponsors a series of film shorts called Personal Journeys', transmitted by CNN and the Discovery Channel. In my view these capture the essence of progress far more effectively than those big-budget ads starring Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese. So what about Johnnie Walker's personal journey, he must be near the end by now, surely? Morley laughs, I think it could actually be in its early introduction phase, and yet you'd have expected me to say "Oh it's post-mature". I actually don't believe in life cycles - I genuinely think that the Johnnie Walker brand has an enormous potential for an emerging generation of adult males. If Scotch fails to recruit a new generation of drinkers, then the life-cycle issue does become relevant. Inevitably there are parts of the world where it's much, much easier for us to recruit, and on balance, as we continue to grow this wonderful brand, we are doing more of it than we're losing.'