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Brand image is one of the most essential and difficult aspects of marketing. It takes years to build and can cost millions or even billions of dollars. If not done right, it can even kill a century-old brand. This is especially true in the spirits business, where brand image can make or break a business.

One brand that has mastered the art of brand communication is Johnnie Walker. The legacy of Johnnie Walker has continued for 200 years, making it a marketing masterpiece to learn from. What started out as an obsession for consistently tasting whiskey by a grocery boy has turned into a business empire that has spanned four generations and scaled across 180 countries.

However, after 150 years of being the most popular whiskey brand in the world, by the end of the 20th century, Johnnie Walker faced one of the most difficult challenges faced by every age-old brand: identity crisis. But the way they reacted to this crisis taught the world an incredible lesson in marketing.


In 1999, within just three years, Johnnie Walker saw a disastrous decline in sales by 14%. The board discovered that Johnnie Walker had 27 campaigns running all across the world, each with a different message, and the brand had no substantial image of itself. In addition, the megatrend in the 1980s and 1990s was inclining towards wine and vodka, leading to a 20% decline in whiskey sales volume among American consumers.

Diageo, the parent company of Johnnie Walker, stepped in and brought together an amazing team of marketers to understand how to revive the brand and build a brand image that can stand tall in the modern age. The campaign they designed turned out to be so magical that within the next 15 years, it turned Johnnie Walker into a $2.2 billion brand.

The marketers of Johnnie Walker did super intense market research and realized that there were three major problems with the brand.

Firstly, whiskey was being viewed as an old man's drink, so the youth did not connect with any whiskey brand, in general.

Secondly, all across the world, since they had 27 campaigns running parallel, each one of them had a different message, so no one had any clear idea about what exactly is the brand persona of Johnnie Walker.

And third and most importantly, the narrative of the marketing message was just self-obsessed and it almost looked like bragging.


Johnie walker keep walking

The marketers of Johnnie Walker took three radical steps to redefine Johnnie Walker to the world.

Firstly, they killed all their campaigns and put together a team that would work specifically on communicating just one core message.

Secondly, they changed the striding man himself, and instead of the old cartoon figure who was full of personality, wit, and charm, they decided to rebuild it into something more modern, minimalistic, and sleek. This was done just so that it could appeal to a younger audience.

And last and most importantly, the most crucial step that they took was to change the narrative of the marketing message. Instead of talking about themselves, they said, 'Let's talk about you, the customers.' Instead of coming out with their own ideas and assumptions about masculinity, they directly went and spoke to their ideal customers that are men between the age of 25-35.

This gave them a golden insight. While most brands assume that men are lured by materialistic success like having a fancy car or a rich lifestyle, the marketeers of Johnnie Walker discovered that more than the external success, it was the inner sense of progress, the inner confidence that their customers valued the most.

Johnny Walker, keep walking.' And they featured the stories of great individuals like Lincoln's quote in the print magazine to depict the fact that Lincoln kept walking in spite of all the obstacles in life only to become a legendary president.

In the media, they featured the great footballer Roberto Baggio wherein who overcame his nightmare of missing the penalty at the 1994 World Cup final. And guess what? Soon enough the campaign was on fire within the next few years. Johnnie Walker went from having a sales decline to seeing a tremendous sales increase by almost a 100% in the next 15 years wherein they sold 19 million 9-liter cases as compared to 10 million in 1999. This is how Johnnie Walker established a legacy in advertising and since then they have constantly brought along new derivatives of their 'Keep Walking' campaign.

And these campaigns range all the way from topical to historic events just so that they could keep striking a chord with the audience. And one of the 'Keep Walking' campaigns held in Brazil in 2011 had become such a symbol of perseverance and determination that when the Brazil protest erupted in 2013 people turned the "Keep Walking" slogan into "Keep Fighting" and held the slogan to state their determination to achieve change. and apart from the vogue image Johnnie Walker is so keen on catching up with the new age marketing strategies that they are one of the first spirit brands to experiment with social media and influencer marketing strategies.

And this move speaks volumes about how much they have learned as a brand from their own mistakes.


1. Perceived value is underrated. If you take a step back, you will realize that I did not speak a word about how Johnnie Walker was trying to make their whiskey tastier or smoother. The entire turnaround was brought along, not because Johnnie Walker tasted better but because it's still the exact same whiskey served in the exact same bottle that was sold 100 years back. the only thing that changed was the story of the brand that turned its tables around and eventually, made a billion dollars.

2. No brand is too big to falter. you might have a 200-year-old legacy, and you might be spread across 180 countries but if you do not pay attention to the fundamental truths of consumer perception it is only a matter of time before you'd go from being an icon to being a forgotten icon. Unfortunately, Old Monk is a standing example of the same.

3. Every consumer, knowingly or unknowingly looks for a product that is an embodiment of his/her own personality. And the job of the marketeer is not to tell the story of the brand but to tell the story of the consumer himself because, at the end of the day, the perception of the brand is nothing but the reflection of the customer's personality. And hence, the narrative must always be about the customer and not about the company.


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