Straight up: how Johnnie Walker conquered the world

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Mexico is rising. You can see it in the country’s swelling exports, the net-zero migration to the United States, the excitement of international bond investors, a recent credit upgrade from Standard & Poor’s, a newly confident middle class and a per capita GDP that has doubled since 2000. Not to mention a young, dynamic, handsome new president. You can also see Mexico’s surge forward in a Scotch whisky ad.

The television spot says nothing about the product but everything about the country’s long march from poverty toward prosperity. It shows thousands of Mexicans, men and women, young and old, bound by chains to a massive boulder. They trudge up a dusty mountain, faces contorted and blackened. The boulder pulls them back. A buzzard circles above. They push forward again, straining and wincing, and then — with a crunch — the boulder slides back downhill, throwing them to the ground.

One by one, they stand up and unchain themselves. Unburdened, they walk with gritted smiles and purpose up the dusty talus slope, leaving the boulder behind. Cue the soaring music. Cue the blue-sky vistas. Cue the tag line: “Keep Walking Mexico.”

It’s a brilliant ad, and you’d be forgiven for not immediately realizing it’s for Scottish booze. The only hint is the familiar Johnnie Walker logo, the stylized “Striding Man.” The metaphor of national achievement is clear, but the ad doesn’t just tell the story of Mexico today. It also highlights Johnnie Walker’s aggressive push into emerging markets and the rush by multinational consumer-products companies to catch the middle-class tsunami that is transforming the world.

The Brookings Institution’s Homi Kharas estimates that the global middle class will hit 4.9 billion people by 2030, growing by 3 billion from today — and they’ll spend $56 trillion a year, up from $21 trillion today. Virtually all that growth will come from emerging economies.

That’s a lot of people walking upward — and a lot of potential Johnnie Walker drinkers. That’s why executives from Starbucks to McDonald’s to Coca-Cola see their future in the global middle class. And that’s why Johnnie Walker’s parent company, Diageo, is pushing into liquor stores from Chile to China.

Today, four bottles of Johnnie Walker, the world’s No. 1-selling Scotch whisky, are consumed every second, with some 120 million bottles sold annually in 200 countries. Five of Johnnie Walker’s top seven global markets are in the emerging world, including Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, China and a region the company calls “Global Travel Asia and Middle East.”

From a small town in the Scottish Lowlands, the Striding Man has come a long way — and he’s still walking.

It’s everywhere

Ask anyone who travels in emerging markets and chances are they’ve been offered Johnnie Walker. These are just some of the places I’ve seen it poured: at a Beijing gathering of techies, a four-day wedding in Jaipur, countless bars in Dubai, a Nile cruise in Egypt, the home of an Arab diplomat in Bangkok, private homes in Tehran, a middle-class Istanbul house and diplomatic parties in Riyadh.

Journalists who spent time in Baghdad during the Iraq war marveled at the easy availability of Johnnie Walker Black Label, even when food staples were scarce. On a trip across the Iran-Iraq border in the late 1990s, I stopped at the small city of Mahabad. A local smuggler peered into the car window and asked in his Persian accent: “Johnnie Valker?” He offered us a “very good price, my friend.”

It’s uncanny, the ubiquity of the striding Scot and his blended whisky (no “e” for the Scottish kind). It’s everywhere, particularly among the upper end of the middle classes that the world’s corporations are chasing. In Thailand, businessmen place a bottle of Black Label on the table before a closing negotiation. In Japan, bottles have become an essential part of the ritualized gift-giving culture. In India, one of Bollywood’s most famous comedians even took the name Johnny Walker.

In Africa, the newest gold mine of emerging markets, Diageo is cultivating a fresh generation of whisky drinkers. In downtown Nairobi, a 20-story billboard of the Striding Man towers alongside a skyscraper. African musicians and athletes have been named “brand ambassadors,” and premium magazines are running a series of print ads that say simply: “Step Up.” As in, step up to a better life, step up to the middle class, step up from that stale beer to a higher state of being.

The campaign seems to be working. Johnnie Walker sales are up 38 percent in East Africa and 33 percent in South Africa. Diageo is doubling down, investing $368 million to expand operations in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest market.

It’s a classic strategy: reach the growing middle classes by selling them not just a product, but a lifestyle, an aspiration. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz often talks about selling an experience; coffee is an afterthought. The message from Diageo is similar: Keep Walking, you emerging middle classes; keep rising, and oh, by the way, treat yourself to a little Johnnie Walker while you’re at it.

Going global

So how did a little whisky company from a little country become the global brand of upward mobility?

In 1819, a young John Walker, the son of a local farmer, opened a small general store on King Street in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Walker sold wines and spirits, including his own blended whiskies. In his 1951 book, “Scotch: the Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story,” Robert Bruce Lockhart noted that Walker’s “capital was tiny and his business small and purely local.” In 1852, he lost everything in a devastating flood.

But Walker methodically rebuilt his business, gradually bringing his son, Alexander, into the trade. It was Alexander who took the elixir global. By the time he died four decades later, a global brand had been born: Johnnie Walker.

Alexander Walker’s distribution arrangement was fairly simple: Shippers would take his goods with them on their journeys around the world, sell them, take a commission and remit the remaining profits to the firm. Walker’s whisky thus bobbed along the British Empire’s trading routes for decades.

Alexander Walker is also credited with the unique square-shaped bottle and its distinctive sticker, angled at precisely 24 degrees. The square shape allowed more bottles to fit on a shelf, and the logo’s angle helped catch the eye. Walker died in 1889, but the steady hands of two Walker kinsmen and a young Scottish neighbor of great ability, James Stevenson, guided his growing enterprise over the next half-century.

In 1908, the owners reached out to a leading artist of the era, Tom Browne, to help them design a poster. With just a few sharp strokes of his pen, Browne sketched what would become one of the world’s most recognizable advertising icons. “The Striding Man was critical,” whiskey historian Kevin Kosar told me, because it differentiated Walker from other scotch purveyors, which tended to play on Scotland’s traditions of bearded men in kilts playing bagpipes, an image that lacked universality. Here was a gentleman on the move.

By the early 20th century, the firm had it all: a growing business, a winning icon, new markets. Then came World War I, and business slowed worldwide. World War II brought another storm, but its aftermath produced historic growth in the West and rising fortunes elsewhere.

Johnnie Walker made a big push into the U.S. market, advertising in gentlemen’s magazines and targeting the successful, aspirational male. But the company also went after newly opened overseas markets. Japan proved to be an early post-World War II success. In Hollywood, Johnnie Walker started appearing in movies from “Blade Runner” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” making it not just a drink but a cultural icon.

After some purchases and mergers, Diageo was created in 1997 and is now the world’s largest spirits group by revenue; its bold-faced brands include not only Johnnie Walker but also Smirnoff vodka, Captain Morgan rum and Tanqueray gin. Diageo is an alcohol colossus that already generates nearly 40 percent of its sales from emerging markets. That fraction is set to rise to 50 percent by 2015.

Johnnie Everyman

Today, Diageo is walking toward India and the acquisition of United Spirits, the country’s largest alcoholic drinks firm, with 60 percent of the market. More whiskey is consumed in India than in any other country, and the distribution network Diageo would get with United Spirits is akin to a raw materials producer gaining access to internal rail networks or shipping ports. Diageo also has acquired Brazil’s giant Ypioca and has its eyes on Mexico’s Jose Cuervo, the world’s top-selling tequila-maker.

China is the big prize, though. There alone the middle class has grown to some 350 million people, a figure that could reach 1 billion by 2030. And they’ll be toasting to their success. Diageo especially is courting young, urban professional Chinese — “chuppies” — with the familiar “Keep Walking” ad campaign. Since 2011, two “Johnnie Walker Houses” have opened, in Shanghai and Beijing, offering tours that mix a dab of Scottish heritage, a dash of whisky education and a jigger of clubby exclusivity.

Meanwhile, some Scotch devotees argue that Johnnie Walker — now a massive conglomerate with more than 25,000 employees spread across the globe — has forgotten its Scottish roots. In late 2012, Diageo even bulldozed the last production plant in Kilmarnock.

The Striding Man has had a face-lift, too — literally. His face no longer exists. He has become a silhouette, a colorless everyman. He could be anyone — and you could be him.

Afshin Molavi is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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