Asia Pacific really likes their whisky.
The gold liquid makes up 40% of multinational alcoholic beverage company DIAGEO sales in Asia, compared to only 25% of its global sales. One of the brands that sit under the behemoth is Johnnie Walker, the world’s most widely distributed blended whiskies.
The immensely popular liquor started out life in 19th century Scotland when John “Johnnie” Walker began selling it from his grocery shop. It was his son, Alexander Walker, who took the elixir global with a simple distribution model.
Shippers would take the bottled whisky with them on their journeys around the world, sell them, take a commission and handover remaining profits to the firm. Over 100 years later, the brand sells over 120 million bottles across 200 countries in bars, restaurants, breweries and lounges.
Four bottles of Johnnie Walker are consumed every second” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
So the question arises, if in today’s digital world, people can order clothing, groceries, razors and even pets online, why not alcohol?
Companies like Drizly, Saucey, Paneco, Wishbeer and yes, Johnnie Walker, are attempting to offer their own solutions to ensure that consumers can enjoy a drink at any time of the day, but not many have found lasting success.
After shutting down its luxury e-tail site “Alexander & James” after a short four year run, DIAGEO publicly acknowledged that it was struggling to find success in online direct-to-consumer, referring to it as,
A pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that you need to keep on chasing.”
The company recently lost its place to Kweichow Moutai as reigning liquor market leader in China as the Chinese taste shifted to premium brands, especially for gifts and elaborate events.
In light of the company’s closure of “A & J” earlier this year citing that “consumers don’t look for specialty shops online”, the company is shifting focus to sell its products on platforms like Amazon and Tesco.
A partnership with a mass marketplace is appealing for two reasons; (1) it already has a large audience and (2) enables the sale of DIAGEO products online.
“We can raise awareness, but if they can’t buy the products, it’s void. [The partnership with Amazon] gives us that complete circle – we can entertain and educate viewers with how-to guides, and then make it as easy as possible for them to make the purchase,” said Johanna Dalley, World Class Global Director at Diageo Reserve.
“It’s the perfect storm – we are creating content that inspires people to buy our brands, and we can directly look at conversion and click-through rates.”
But what happens when strict regulations in emerging markets like Thailand prohibit the use of photos or celebrities to promote the brand’s lifestyle?
Big C, one of Thailand’s largest retailers, offers a range of beverages from beer to wine online but the website states it cannot display any photos/logos/names of alcohol due to the country’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.
On the other hand, Wine Connection and Wishbeer, both operate websites in Thailand that contain photos of wine bottles, craft beers and sales. The companies are risking the 150,000 – 200,000 THB ($6,040) in hopes of a stronger payout.
A fair assumption given a recent study found that approximately 30% of Thai people started to drink alcohol after seeing images of their favourite celebrities posed with drinks.
If DIAGEO is willing to risk the fine, which no reports indicate it has ever been enforced, it has a strong direct-to-consumer opportunity in Southeast Asia – especially Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines – because of the region’s growing online adoption and preference for spirits and beer.
DIAGEO, in particular Johnnie Walker, has long been eyeing emerging markets. Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and China are some of the brand’s top seven global markets.
How has the company approached selling in these markets?
In Diageo’s case, the company has created a four-part ecommerce strategy:
- Developing a strategy and getting its ‘house in order’ (internal restructuring, hiring, etc.)
- On-trade and off-trade strategy
- Activating ecommerce channels (strategic partnerships with pure players, delivery companies, etc.)
- Direct to consumer through individual brand websites
Anyone looking at DIAGEO’s key moves in the online space cannot say the company hasn’t tried.
In 2016, the company announced a partnership with Deliveroo to offer an ‘alcohol-on demand’ service called thebar.com in certain areas in the UK. It’s a similar and popular strategy like Wine Connection’s partnership with delivery company, honestbee, in Thailand.
Charles Ireland, Diageo GM for Great Britain, Ireland and France, says DIAGEO is spending more money on digital platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram and even dating app Tinder, than traditional media for the first time. The goal is to use videos and other forms of content to educate and raise awareness.
“There is a shift towards content marketing within Diageo more broadly. In terms of monetisation, we will see more partnerships with Amazon from a commercial perspective. Other retailers are content hungry too, and are looking for content for their websites. [We will] provide them with content if it helps people click through to purchase,” said Dalley.
In Asia, the demand for alcohol is not the problem when beer sales consistently outpace GDP growth like in Vietnam since 2009. The biggest challenge is lack of awareness and oscillating regulations.
“In terms of direct to consumer [selling], I think there are consumer goods companies that are doing it quite successfully, but we haven’t quite hit a successful formula yet and we’re continually working on it,” says Charles.
Keep walking Johnnie, you’ll get there.