It’s one of the hot topics in the drinks world, how to sell what has traditionally been perceived as a man’s drink to women. Lucy Shaw talks to some experts to find out how to sell whisky to women without being patronising.
Close your eyes and imagine a whisky drinker enjoying a single malt after a long day at work. Imagine them swirling the liquid in their glass and savouring the aromas before taking a sip. Hold that image in your mind for a moment. Did you picture a man? While over a third of whisky drinkers in the UK and US are women, the perception of whisky being a man’s drink is so deeply rooted in our psyche that it will take time to unpick. The female whisky drinker is a fast-growing and hugely important demographic, yet women often get overlooked in whisky marketing campaigns, or play supporting roles within the narrative.
Successfully marketing whisky to women is something that needs to be carefully navigated. If you’re too targeted, you can end up looking patronising, but if you’re too subtle in your approach then are you effecting any positive change? “Whisky is facing a lot of legacy issues. Society has changed and the industry has been slow to keep up. Men were always the low-hanging fruit, and the perception that whisky was a man’s drink made it easy for brands to aim their adverts at them. After decades of male-dominated and focused advertising, when whisky brands try to appeal to women it can be jarring, not least to the women who are already happily drinking whisky,” says Irish journalist Bill Linnane.
In 2018 Diageo caused a storm in a tumbler when it announced that it had turned Johnnie Walker’s iconic striding man into a woman for a ‘Jane Walker’ Black Label limited edition in a bid to attract more female fans. At the time Johnnie Walker’s vice president, Stephanie Jacoby, told Bloomberg that “Scotch as a category is seen as intimidating by women”, and that the Jane Walker launch would “invite women into the brand”. While well-intentioned, the campaign was criticised from all sides. “I find those attempts at addressing gender imbalances really toe-curling. They end up making the brand look a bit foolish; any enlightened brand isn’t going about it in that way anymore,” says FT drinks columnist Alice Lascelles.
Spirits expert and former Master of Malt editor Kristiane Sherry feels the campaign showed “some ambition for change”, but creating a whisky squarely for women implies that the other expressions in the Johnnie Walker range are somehow off limits. “Featuring Jane rather than Johnnie on a bottle gives women some visibility, but it treats them as one homogenous group. And producing a bottle ‘for’ women is exclusionary – who are the ‘Johnnie’ bottles for?” Sherry questions. “It’s important to avoid grouping women together – that’s when it becomes tokenistic and the messaging misses the mark.”
Stand by your campaign
Johnnie Walker’s global brand director, Julie Bramham, stands by the campaign. “The Jane Walker campaign was about celebrating the many achievements of women. It was a showcase of pioneering women and great whisky. We’re proud to celebrate this and hope to support people on the journey towards gender equality. We believe the campaign was successful at bringing attention to gender inequality and tackling that issue,” she says.
Last year Emma Walker became the first female master blender in Johnnie Walker’s 200-year history. Bramham believes we’ve moved “well beyond” the idea that whisky is seen as intimidating to women. “As the biggest Scotch brand in the world, we want to recruit the next generation of whisky drinkers – whoever that might be. Male, female or however people wish to identify, if you like great flavour then you’ll appreciate great Scotch,” she says.
Paquin a punch
In April, The Glenlivet took a more provocative approach with its female-focused ad campaign starring Anna Paquin, who seeks to encourage more women whisky drinkers into the fold by smashing stereotypes. “Whisky doesn’t care what’s between your legs, so why should we be told to follow these rules?” Paquin says, while suggestively crossing her legs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. However, advertising industry veteran Steve Harrison, author of Can’t Sell Won’t Sell, feels the advert is patronising to its target audience.
“The ad is simply the filmed version of the two mood boards presented by the agency depicting where the brand is at the moment and where the client wants it to be,” he says. “Why can’t women be involved in the whisky conversation and spoken to as knowledgeable, discerning consumers rather than talked down to like children who are unable to understand and appreciate a whisky’s finer qualities? It’s patronising assuming that you can’t appeal to women on the basis of their discernment.” Sherry is equally unimpressed with The Glenlivet’s efforts to open up the category. “Whisky marketers have a long way to go if they think this is an effective way of marketing to anyone, let alone women who are routinely objectified and judged for their bodies,” she says.
Equal playing field
The key to attracting a wider female demographic to whisky lies in treating women as equals to men, rather than trying to syphon them off into a subgroup. “Over the years, I’ve observed just about every distillery attempt to create packaging, sweeter flavours and marketing slogans to target women and fail miserably, because they didn’t respect their palates. Women crave complicated flavours far more than a marketing ploy,” says Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women, citing Maker’s Mark bourbon as being way ahead of the curve in bringing women into the whiskey conversation.
There are rewards to be reaped for brands that successfully engage with women in an authentic and unpatronising way. “For the most part female whisky drinkers represent significant untapped potential,” points out OurWhisky founder Becky Paskin. “To change the narrative brands need to include women in marketing campaigns, either on their own or alongside men. Depict female drinkers enjoying a range of serves, both neat and in cocktails, and highlight the women actually making the whisky. Forget marketing gimmicks, sweet whisky and pink labels – visibility is the key to unlocking a female audience,” she says.
Having long been associated with middle-aged, tweed-clad men, such seismic change won’t come overnight. “Whisky was pedalled for so long as a ‘man’s drink’, so reversing that messaging and breaking down those stereotypes is going to take time,” says Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business magazine. “The issue doesn’t lie with women being uninterested in whisky, it’s in the marketing and messaging that has excluded them.” Kiely cites Glenmorangie’s colourful 2020 campaign created in partnership with fashion photographer Miles Aldridge and agency DDB Paris as “a welcome shake-up of traditional whisky marketing”, with its bold visuals and focus on flavour.
Lascelles feels more women might be tempted to try whisky if the packaging was more appealing, the glassware more glamorous and whisky bars were more welcoming places. “What I’m longing to see is more contemporary, imaginative packaging, and more whisky bars embracing buildings flooded with natural light and getting away from fireplaces and tweed,” she says. There’s also huge untapped potential in creating an occasion around the Highball. “The ritual around the Highball serve, which is exquisite in its simplicity, can be a beautiful collective experience that offers a fresh take on whisky,” she says, name-checking organic Highlands distillery Nc’Nean, run by Annabel Thomas, as a single malt brand that’s helping to introduce whisky to a wider audience.
For Thomas, the best way to reach a broader audience is to see that diversity reflected within your own company. “I don’t think whisky should be marketed to women. It should be marketed in an inclusive, diverse way to a whole range of adults. Don’t concentrate on Father’s Day but leave out Mother’s Day, don’t only partner with male-focused brands, and don’t assume that your consumers want to drink your product neat,” she says.
Louise Higgins, Bacardi’s VP of marketing for Western Europe, agrees that whisky brands should be inclusive in their advertising approach, honing in on consumer behaviours rather than going down a gender-specific route. “Whisky is for everyone and the way we market this wonderful spirit should reflect that. Marketing today is so much more sophisticated than it used to be. We can reach the target consumer according to occasion and mindset,” she says.
How to sell whisky to women
Old habits die hard, and it will take the whisky industry a while to adjust its marketing messages to be more reflective of its increasingly diverse legion of fans. In order to meaningfully engage with its growing base of female drinkers, visibility is key – women need to be authentically represented rather than lazily stereotyped. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and solved, from within, which is becoming easier as more women take the top jobs at distilleries and on the boards of drinks giants and advertising agencies.
Representation, from the boardroom to the billboard to the bar, helps, but there’s still a long way to go, as Sherry points out: “For brands to recruit more women drinkers, they need to go way beyond advertising. This is about challenging bias in recruitment, adopting progressive policies and championing inclusion beyond the gender binary.” Rather than releasing a rose-scented whisky in pink packaging, brands need to treat women as discerning equals and include them in the conversation. “Fundamentally, women are interested in the same things that men are interested in – the quality of the product, how it’s made and the ethos of the company,” says Thomas. The whisky category doesn’t need to be dumbed down, it needs to be opened up.