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Claire Beale on Advertising: BBH’s hot-toddy for ailing Johnnie Walker

Johnnie wasn’t well. Really, quite yellow. He was old, but this is one business where age is quality. Still, after 180 years he was going downhill pretty fast and the prognosis was bad.

A decade ago Johnnie Walker was on the critical list. The world’s biggest-selling whisky brand was losing market share and confidence. Then he got an advertising makeover. It was so successful, last week he became poster boy for the power of advertising to revive a business.

Johnnie Walker has scooped the top gong at the advertising industry’s Effectiveness Awards and catapulted the transformational potency of advertising into the headlines. As adland hurtles towards recession, it needs headlines like this; stories like Johnnie Walker’s could be advertising’s restorative.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s advertising turned Johnnie Walker from a tired old boy with an identity crisis (in Europe he was comfy slippers and roaring fires, in Latin America a party drink mixer, in Asia a status symbol) into a global icon.

You probably won’t have seen much of the advertising that has restored the whisky to health; the focus has been an international one. Check out Johnniewalker.com to see the work. It’s beautiful.

But the effectiveness of the story is about more than creating lush, cut-through advertising. First BBH had to identify why JW was on the slide. The brand had no consistent marketing strategy and budgets were stretched too thinly across disparate initiatives. What Johnnie needed was to stand for something, an ideal that customers could embrace that elevated the brand beyond simply a drink, towards a statement.

Johnnie Walker had to become an icon brand. Yes, we’re about to enter the world of advertising jargon, where brands have personalities and emotive symbolism. Bear with me, because this stuff works.

The experts will tell you there are three key ingredients in the brand icon blend: first, obviously, a universally recognised symbol or icon that is always attached to your brand. In Johnnie Walker’s case that’s the yellow bloke with the top hat and cane. But icon brands also need resonance, a set of fundamental values that have meaning to people. And they need to embody ideals that help people express who they want to be.

See the Nike swoosh logo and you think of training shoes or football boots, but you also think of encouragement, incitement, energy. The silver apple icon means ipods and laptops, but it also means challenging the norm, creativity, being different. So what did old Johnnie Walker stand for? Nothing with any clarity. Finding that identity the challenge.

Whisky has always been associated with masculine success but over the last few years men’s definition of success has shifted. Now it has little to do with wealth or ostentatious displays of status. Success now means striving to become a better man, it’s about self-improvement, change and progress.

Unlocking that truth and aligning the sentiment with the JW brand through searing creative work based on the Keep Walking thought won BBH what is arguably adland’s most valuable award. Being the agency that best proves the effectiveness of its work is perhaps the best calling card in the industry.

Big brands that absolutely understand the value of advertising are already trimming their marketing spend. Last week Marks & Spencer, winner of the 2006 Effectiveness Grand Prix award for an advertising strategy that had its products “flying off the shelves”, announced it was slashing its marketing spend by 20 per cent. Marketers are under intense pressure to prove their value.

What stories like Johnnie Walker’s shows, though, is that the right marketing strategy, sustained and developed over time, is not a cost, it’s an investment. Since it launched at the turn of the century, BBH’s campaign has grown sales of the whisky by 48 per cent, delivering $2.21bn (£1.4bn) of incremental sales. Surely that’s worth taking a long-term view for.

Best in show: VOLKSWAGEN (DDB)

Not all really effective advertising – the work that actually sells things – would stand much chance in adland’s numerous creative beauty pageants. Effectiveness and creativity are not often comfy bedfellows.

And not many clients are patient enough to see their advertising partnership as a long term investment, working with the same agency over the long haul to really get it right.

Yet after a remarkable 40 years together, VW and its ad agency DDB have honed a winning blend of brilliant advertising creativity that has a demonstrable effect on sales.

I’d bet the latest ad will do the same. It’s for the Volkswagen Tiguan and stars Walter, an unlikely driving instructor from America’s deep south whose students always pass their driving test. His secret? His Tiguan, which is “simply effortless to drive”.

Real product point; flawless directing; the familiar VW humour. Here’s to another 40 years