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The lions' share

Published:  18 January, 2007

Somewhere in the backstreets of Glasgow wild beasts are stirring in the undergrowth. A timid pair of lions that were all but invisible on an old Scotch whisky label have suddenly grown dramatically in stature. Picked out in metallic red against a black background, they have risen up on their hind legs and are roaring with all their might. Above, in large capital letters, is the word special', and above that the brand name itself: Whyte & Mackay.

If those lions rampant express wounded pride, one can sympathise. Whyte & Mackay is an old venerable blend that has lost its self-respect through a combination of changed ownership, lack of investment and heavy discounting. It still has a significant share of the UK and is number two in the Scottish off-trade behind The Famous Grouse. But in an increasingly polarised world, it has struggled in the barren mid-ground between the brand leaders - Bell's and Grouse - and cheap own-label and tertiary brands. The whisky in the bottle may have aspired

to a premium status, but the packaging pointed in the other direction, towards the value end of the market, where the most fickle whisky drinkers hang out. The blue label, the closure and the glass used were of the lowest common denominator. Those selling the brand to the big buyers may have hoped to talk up

its quality credentials like its prized double maturation but invariably ended up discussing only price.

The smart new packaging is a great improvement on the old one. James Espie, who has been round the industry more times than most, running everything from Chivas to IDV, has been closely involved. As a board director of Whyte & Mackay, he is genuinely enthusiastic and calls the redesign back to the future', since the new bottle and the roaring lions come from an earlier design that has been made contemporary.

Being squeezed in the middle and dragged down by the bargain basement is not a nice place to be, but Bob Brannan, the new MD of Whyte & Mackay, argues that such positioning is not set in stone. Brands do move between price points, although it does tend to be down not up. When the revamped packaging is rolled out into the market next spring, it will be interesting to see its new RSP.

If the supermarket buyers are sufficiently bold to try it at

50p or even 1 more, it will then depend on rate of sale. Whether the punter will consider it worth the extra is something else. Hopefully the big retailers will give them enough time to decide.

Brannan believes the issue for blended Scotch in the UK is not polarisation so much as innovation - or the lack of it. Walking past the same old Bell's, Grouse and Teacher's lining the shelves, it is hard not to agree. And seeing the same price-offs and special offers on litre bottles, it is hard to stifle a yawn. The rhythms of whisky promotion from Father's Day to Christmas Day have become entrenched and have been dubbed the tragic roundabout' by Leonard Russell, who produces the Isle of Skye blend. He describes pricing in the UK as a game of follow-the-leader without any leaders. Despite Diageo's commitment to sustainable margins for Scotch, it is currently offering three bottles of its main UK spirits brands for 25 - that puts Bell's at 8.33.

Along with its loyal fan base in Glasgow, Whyte & Mackay certainly has heritage - although a less kind word would be baggage'. The packaging may be innovative, but the brand remains the same, in a category that is crying out for something new. That said, it has much less of a presence south of the border - and therefore less of a past. Seeing it in the supermarket among the usual suspects, English drinkers may well feel they are discovering something new and fresh.

Overseas, this is even more true, since Whyte & Mackay has been a very UK-centric brand so far. Much of the world is virgin territory, but what matters is finding good distributors in each market. Here, the timing may help, given the contraction in the industry after Pernod Ricard's takeover of Allied, which has left a number of good distributors dispossessed of a Scotch whisky brand. Whyte & Mackay has to compete with such vertically integrated giants as Pernod and Diageo, but having the right partner who feels a sense of ownership of the brand will compensate somewhat for the lack of financial muscle. n