Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Leave the Brand out of It

Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Leave the Brand out of It

Article excerpt

Johnnie Walker's move out of Kilmarnock has stirred up a storm, but why is the focus on the brand?

In three centuries of Scottish whisky production, more than 1000 distilleries have operated at one time or another. The fact that there are now fewer than 100 left in operation tells you all you need to know about the volatile nature of whisky production.

So the news that Diageo plans to close its Johnnie Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock and Port Dundas distillery should come as little surprise Corporate restructuring, government intervention and union protests are as much part of the whisky business as grain and water.

Moving Johnnie Walker's production to a plant on the Morayshire coast will save Diageo more than pounds 100m and create 400 jobs to offset the 900 lost in Kilmarnock. Yet none of this makes the move easy, and it has been met with the usual opposition. What makes this case exceptional is the degree to which all involved in this heated saga are suddenly using and abusing brand to argue their point.

Trades unions that would traditionally cite job losses and corporate greed have focused more on Johnnie Walker's Kilmarnock heritage. 'For the sake of the workforce that for nearly 200 years has remained loyal to the famous brand, save the striding man!' proclaims one union-backed website.

The Scottish government has also jumped on the 'brandwagon' to make its case for the Kilmarnock site. 'This is not just a decision over where you bottle a drink,' claimed Kilmarnock MSP Willie Coffey. 'It is a question of heritage, of brand value and of reputation.'

Des Browne, the Kilmarnock MP, went further by warning Diageo that it risked destroying its brands by moving operations - especially if it eventually left Scotland altogether. 'You interfere with that link at your peril. Eventually you destroy what people are buying, which is the provenance of the product.'

The corporate reaction to this has been remarkable too. The stereotypical chief executive's response to industrial action is to cite the bottom line and shareholder value. But Diageo's boss Paul Walsh not only understands brand equity, he is using it to fight back against his critics. 'I'm aware of the jobs campaign and am aware that people are almost trying to dent the image of the brand,' Walsh declared angrily last week. 'I think it's very short-sighted.'

In the brand era, it seems, everyone can use their power to make their case. So who should marketers side with? A brand's provenance is important, but be careful with brand heritage, as it's a slippery concept. …

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