Ardbeg B.C. (Before Committee)
Issue 27 | June 2013
The rebirth of the Ardbeg Single Malt Whisky brand is a wonderful tale of survival against the odds.
Dave Mullen, Executive Creative Director of Story, explains how its CRM programme, The Ardbeg Committee, helped Ardbeg rise from a standing start in 1999, to become the fastest growing single malt whisky in its sector.
In the Beginning, there was silence, nothingness. Ardbeg was a mothballed distillery on the remote Scottish Island of Islay (pronounced eye-la) in the Inner Hebrides. It had lain derelict for many years.
When the Ardbeg team at Glenmorangie approached us 14 years ago and asked us to relaunch the brand, there was little stock, no customers, no distribution, no data, no brand positioning and a potential customer base who were now loyal to other malt whiskies.
And something else was missing - a budget. In those early days, Ardbeg's total marketing spend for the first year to relaunch was £40K - globally. Challenging times back then.
So what did we do?
WE BOXED CLEVER
There was no money for advertising. So our brand strategy was to create a relationship-marketing programme as the key brand-building technique. From day one, Ardbeg was a brand born out of direct marketing.
However back in 1999, the worldwide web was still in dial-up mode and PCs still had floppy disk drives. This was the world that Ardbeg was reborn into. Planning a CRM programme at a time when you had to visit a cyber café to surf the information superhighway and Facebook, Youtube or the other social media tools we all take for granted now were all yet to be, seems unimaginable. But we used our imagination and we thought inside the box. The cardboard box.
We used the cartons the whisky went out in to get the ball rolling. We decided that before each carton went out into the world, we would insert a small brochure telling people a little about Ardbeg and asking them to join our CRM programme. We knew as the people had made a commitment to purchase, then the quality of the data we were gathering was good. From the very beginning, we only wanted people joining our merry band who genuinely loved Ardbeg.
THE GRAIN OF TRUTH
The best marketing has a truth, and in Ardbeg that can be a' grain of truth' - a fact, real event or a story that needs telling (or embellishing). If our CRM programme was to be more than a marketing gimmick, the name had to be unique, rooted in the brand and proprietary to Ardbeg. So I went on a mission to find out what, if anything we could say about Ardbeg that makes it unique amongst the hundreds of single malt scotch whiskies that exist.
So early one Monday morning, I found myself hopping on a little turbo-prop plane and disappearing over the Lomond mountains on the 20 minute flight from Glasgow. We bumped along, just above the clouds and bounced down on Islay's airstrip right by the beach.
I spent a very long day wandering around the half dozen or so distilleries that Islay had to offer then, checking out and sampling the competition, before traveling along the 7 mile long road that is as straight as a die and leads to Ardbeg.
It was here that I met a spirit angel, Jackie Thomson.
Although there are many more woman in whisky now, Jackie was one of the few frontier ladies at that time and she is still the Distillery's visitor centre manager now. Jackie regaled me with many anecdotes about all things Islay, smugglers and characters past and present, while I was looking for that grain of truth that we could build upon.
But the people of Islay are a humble lot, not prone to bragging or bigging themselves up and it appeared that perhaps apart from a head full of tales and a bag full of whisky I'd bought in the shop - she wasn't voted Visitor Centre Manager of the Year by the Scottish Tourist Board for nothing - my excursion wasn't going to be as fruitful as I'd hoped. But then, as I slid into the taxi on the way to Islay airport terminal (basically a big shed), I asked Jackie how she was going to spend the rest of her evening? And she said, "Oh nothing much, I'm off to ANOTHER committee meeting, we have 140 committees here on the Island, you know." Incredibly, this tiny island, with a population of only 3,000, has over 140 committees. That's an average of 21 committees to each person on Islay. So we created one more - the 'Ardbeg Committee'. As is so often the case in our business, we found the answer in a throwaway remark.
From that day, the seed (or grain) was sown to launch a recruitment campaign for a committee whose task was "to ensure the doors of the Distillery never closed again". The ideas, design and quirky tone of voice we created - often mock-committee speak - all combine to create a sense of inclusiveness, reinforcing the idea that the Committee's involvement will help to shape the future destiny of the Distillery.
BUT SOMETHING WAS MISSING....
We needed a rallying cry. A call to arms. Or in this case, not so much a call, as a 'woof'.
On my next trip to the Distillery, I said to Jackie, "What I'd really like is a mascot, something like the His Masters Voice dog looking down the gramophone." And right on cue, I kid you not, Shortie the Jack Russell walked around the corner of Warehouse 3 and straight into becoming the revered and iconic symbol of the brand, recognised and idolised around the world today.
The peatiest nose on Islay (after Ardbeg that is), features on every single communication to the Ardbeg Committee.
This adored canine character always appears somewhere, sometimes subtly, sometimes as a starring role, but he's ever-present in everything we do. Although worshipped the world over, 14 years on, he's not immortal.
This presents another challenge. Shortie is whisky royalty, he may have various illegitimate offspring, but we'd like him to get his regal leg over again and continue legitimizing the Royal bloodline before he pops his paws. We need an heir.
ISLAY TIME. IT'S WHAT MAKES ARDBEG TICK
When we speak to the Committee we invite them to enter 'Islay Time'. Why 'Islay Time'?
Well, if you go you'll discover, like most of the Hebridean Islands of Scotland, Islay is an antique land. Where Celtic monks found refuge from raiding Norsemen and early distillers smuggled their illicit 'aquavitae' at Ardbeg's rocky cove. Where the Lords of the Isles ruled from Loch Finlaggan between 1130 and 1493 - the clan kings whose bloodline continued through the MacDougall's of Ardbeg, the founders of this great and noble whisky. Islay's history is Ardbeg's heritage. The island's past lives in our present.
That's why Islay Time is special.
Whether someone is in Venice or Venezuela, Boston or Beijing, when they receive a Committee communication, for a few brief moments they are entering 'Islay Time'. The early mailings drove people to the 'dial-up' website where, amongst other things, really patient members could share their views, with others in the Committee Room, view a movie about the restoration of the Distillery - as well as purchase online. Happily, people persevered in those frontier days of digital and since then, the programme has beaten all targets set by recruiting more than 87,000 enthusiastic and passionate members in over 141 countries from Alaska to Australia.
We committed ourselves to ensuring that every communication from the Ardbeg Committee 'Chairman' (the Distillery Manager) looks, feels and reads as though it was produced at the Distillery itself, creating an authentic and warm relationship with the drinker.
The very first communication a Committee member receives is a Welcome Pack. It asks the reader to 'Follow your nose along the most famous road in the history of Single Malt Whisky and eventually, you'll arrive at Ardbeg'. This mailer has stood the test of time and still has had only minor copy amends in 14 years. We take our readers on a romantic journey immersing them in Islay's people, the place and the product. They are our foot soldiers for the brand, so we give them a sense of duty. We give them Rules and Regulations by which they must abide and we never let them forget our MISSION statement... Ensure that the Distillery doors never close again.
WE USE WIT TO WOO
As you'd imagine, we take the business of selling Ardbeg very seriously indeed. But we never ever take 'ourselves' too seriously. We have our own unorthodox wit that translates well into other cultures. Ardbeg is a bold and confident brand, but the whisky endures long after the laughter of the punch line has faded. So although humour plays a key part in all our comms to the Committee, we never make a joke at the expense of the liquor.
'Momentous Minutes' is where we let our hair down the most and have fun with the Committee. This is what you'd call a newsletter I suppose. Initially it was printed and mailed out 3-4 times year but it now takes the form of an interactive PDF emailed. A momentous minute could be the Ark Royal turning up off the coast of the Distillery out of the blue, or the warehouse manager having his marigolds munched when a deer got into his flower beds.
Both are equally momentous occasions in Islay Time and the latter may command more column inches in terms of public interest. All our Momentous Minutes are saved online for posterity. ardbeg.com/ardbeg/committee/room/ momentous-minutes
THE PEOPLE, THE PLACE, THE POTION
We're not selling a product; we're selling a way of life, a belief, a set of values. Like Harley Davidson isn't just about bikes, like Innocent Drinks isn't just about juice, the attitude extends beyond the bottle on the shelf. In the case of Ardbeg, the Distillery and the people are what make it an obsession to our Committee. We actively encourage Committee members to actually make the pilgrimage to the beating heart of the brand to meet and greet their heroes.
To feel the true spirit of Ardbeg, you have to visit the Distillery. Stand on the grassy mound that rises between the buildings and the sea. The sight of the pagoda roofs crowning white-washed walls before you; the sound of waves surging onto the rocks behind you; the smell of malt and sea spray and aromatic peat all around you.
Breathe it in. This is pure Islay. Where Ardbeg is, has been and always will be made by people genuinely devoted to producing 'The Ultimate Islay Malt'. Some brands are a set of values that exist in the ether, but from day one we knew this was a special place and the doors will always be open to our well-travelled Committee folk. We can never forget that Ardbeg the brand is Ardbeg the place, in all its raw natural beauty. And as such, this forms a vital part of the whole programme. [2002: 14,184 Committee Members]
EVERYONE IS BORN WITH A LABEL
Whisky distilling is big business, but only a small number are employed making it; only around half a dozen people in total man the stills which generate over a million litres a year. These men all have their own nicknames, or labels; Dugga, Yogi, The Gow to name but a few.
In October 2002, a special bottling - Ardbeg Committee Reserve - was created and our campaign targeted the then 14,000 Ardbeg Committee who each received a mailing pack. It contained their very own whisky label and a special booklet - a register of all Committee members' names.
They were told that somewhere on Islay, there was a bottle with their name on it - and there was. We'd reserved each member a bottle.
Recipients completed the label with their name and Committee number, which they could find against their name in the mailer. They then returned the label with their order form. As an added incentive, they were told that the first 100 orders would have their label signed by the Chairman of the Committee. The label was then affixed to their bottle at the Ardbeg Distillery, creating a bottle of Ardbeg unique to them. The bottling sold out immediately.
Most direct mail ends up in the bin, but our little A6 booklet full of names was different. Members subsequently went on to carry this little mailer around with them in their pockets, like a passport, in case they should ever bump into a fellow member in some far flung corner of the world, presumably in order to verify their credentials.
Ardbeg mailers - or Committee dispatches - are retained and prized almost as much as the Whisky itself. I've seen our Welcome Pack and Newsletter covers framed like limited edition prints and hung in many a bar all over the world. They have become as collectable as the whisky.
FRIGGIT, LET'S HAVE A DRINK
As mentioned, we encourage all our members to make the pilgrimage to Ardbeg and many do. We have had thousands of visitors over the years, none more illustrious than on a bright summer's morning in mid-June 2003 when Ark Royal (all 20,000 tons of her) dropped anchor on the horizon.
Lieutenant Commander Paul Russell, serving aboard the ship, was a Committee member. When dispatching him a bottle some months before, the Distillery, with true Island hospitality, had extended an invitation to him to, 'pop in' if he was ever in the area.
The rest of his crew decided to spend their day, off-duty at the Distillery and as I recall, we didn't have to pressgang them into joining the Committee. It was all hands on Ardbeg bottles that day.
THE REAL LOYALTY BEHIND ARDBEG
Probably the shrewdest investment Ardbeg ever made in its brand was investing 14 years of their time and money in a single brand agency - Story. Whether it was planned or just turned out that way, it is unusual. Marketing is an industry that's fickle and applauds 'New'. Our industry is sometimes a slave to change.
Ardbeg conversely, have kept their marketing fresh by working consistently with the same group of people. It has reaped the rewards and awards of that investment. The talented Steve Harris, then Worldwide Creative Director of Wunderman remarked about Ardbeg, "Suffice to say the Planet's greatest loyalty/continuity programme shone like a beacon and has been duly recognised as such." Trevor Beattie of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, a man who has had an idea or two in his time, speaking in Scotland to a group of creatives said our Ardbeg Corryvreckan campaign was, "An inspiration'" and duly awarded it, not a gong, but a ginger haired gonk. Over the years, Adam Morgan, author of Eat Big Fish and indeed Directory's own Patrick Collister have always had a kind word or two to say about Ardbeg.
Plaudits aside, I've always believed that it's clients who win awards not agencies. Ardbeg has had many people working on the account over the years - client and agency side - and each one has brought something remarkable and special to the brand, for which we thank them all. I couldn't possible name them all here but you'll find their credits in the best international awards annuals of the last decade. But a core creative team has been on Ardbeg for nearly the full 14 years - and that includes key illustrators, photographers, film-makers and animators. We all have a shared sense of ownership that goes from the bottom to the top. And somewhere near the summit is the remarkably calming and jovial influence of our client, Hamish Torrie. A man who has never, ever written a brief in the 14 years I've worked with him.
But if Ardbeg don't write things down, how do we get things done? This is how Hamish explains our agency relationship: "Frankly the Ardbeg brand group sees them as partners in a great adventure rather than a conventional client/agency relationship. Success has come from an almost telepathic unity of purpose. Their commitment to getting it right every time is demonstrated by their painstaking attention to detail. They are also fierce protagonists and protectors of the brand itself. The quality of Story's output continually re-energises the brand." Telepathic? Well we do all instinctively know what is right and wrong for the brand. But what he means really is it's less about transmitting brain waves and more about having brainstorms. We all sit down - everyone, from makers to marketers - and we all talk. More importantly we plan.
Whisky is a long game, and although opportunities and circumstance do throw up the odd gem from time to time, in the main, we make our own luck on this brand.
We get completely immersed in all aspects of the brand from product development and packaging, to pimping tractors for the latest Ardbeg phenomenon. Ardbeg is about making rules then immediately breaking them, as demonstrated by the launch of Very Young Ardbeg... [2003: 19,683 Committee Members]
IT'S GOT YOUR NOSE
Launching YOUNG malt whisky could have been seen as a cheeky revenue generating exercise. So a soft launch positioned 6 Year Old Very Young Ardbeg as a way for Ardbeg fans to sample 'work in progress' - and to rubber stamp the launch of it.
The whisky industry in entrenched in the notion that age means premium price and higher quality. Ardbeg decided to turn convention on its head and make a virtue of youth.
Ardbeg's increasing popularity since relaunch had led to supply and demand issues, with older stock running low.
So new 'sought-after' expressions were crucial to maintain revenue.
A restrictive budget meant we launched it via a cover story in 'Momentous Minutes'. We invited the Committee to sample our 'work in progress' by buying, tasting and approving it and giving us feedback.
The sell-out and positive response gave us the green light to roll out the 'approved' bottling worldwide and then follow that up with a 7-yr-old, 8, 9 and so one.
This 'wee peat monster!' as one Committee Member called it, although younger commanded a premium price over its 10-year-old older brother and strengthened the brand stable. It's all about getting the Committee involved and keeping them involved. [2005: 24,692 Committee Members]
SERENDIPITY. PITY TO WASTE IT.
There was a young man from Ardbeg Alas we're not pulling your leg Being remiss in his task He filled the wrong cask And your pardon we're having to beg Over the years we've shared some remarkable stories with the Committee. In 2005 Ardbeg came to us with a problem of monumental, catastrophic proportions.
Someone in the Distillery had pulled the wrong lever and mixed Ardbeg with small amount of different whisky - a big no-no in the single malt whisky world. The gaffe had rendered over £750,000 worth of very old single malt whisky useless. This was literally going to be money down the drain. With most brands, this would have been a disaster. But we were literally punching the air with joy that day. You couldn't make it up. Here we had an incredible story to tell our band of whisky lovers! To these die-hard Ardbeg fans, adulterating the 'Ultimate Islay Malt' with anything other than water was a mortal sin.
But by choosing to confess our folly on April Fools Day via a quirky, limerick booklet, we begged the Committee's official pardon for 'blending' their precious Ardbeg with another whisky. By asking them to grant us absolution by buying the notorious blend - which actually tasted amazing - we cemented the relationship further.
We launched this new bottling as Serendipity and rescued money and whisky from literally disappearing down the plughole. This is how our mailing revealed the folly to the Committee... In came the distillery folk Who thought, "Well it must be a joke..." Stuart calmed the commotion Dugga sampled the potion And Jackie CONSOLED the poor bloke But in all of the hullabaloo They couldn't decide what to do Then up popped the Chief Nose With one quaff did propose "I've got an IDEA for you... "Why don't the COMMITTEE decide?
This folly we simply can't hide I've just had a taste It's too precious to waste I'm sure they'll agree when they've tried "So what shall we call it, let's think - We've brought this dram back from the brink" Thus an act of stupidity Became SERENDIPITY And the name of this wonderful drink Thus it was that notorious day We fused ARDBEG with neat GLENMORAY They weren't meant to mate But it must have been fate Cos everything turned out okay What was destined to be money down the drain turned into a liquid asset. We created a worldwide buzz in chatrooms and strengthened the quirky brand, sold out and recouped a lot more money than the Distillery would have lost. We also inadvertently created a collectors item, selling at several hundred pounds a bottle in today's market.
One thing I think is particularly brave about all this.
When bedlam was ensuing in the background, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey) were looking to acquire Glenmorangie who owned Ardbeg. A lesser chairman may have been inclined to bury this catastrophe for fear of putting off a suitor but Paul Neep took the risk and soon afterwards sold the whole lot, lock stock and (whisky) barrel to the French luxury giant for £300M.
We have a space on the website named 'Gigs and Yarns' which is devoted to storytelling. On a windswept day back in 2002, writers Bex and Olivia grabbed a few Islanders off the street in Port Ellen and persuaded them to recount their tales. These were the days before digital proper, and the girls captured them on an old tape recorder while trying to stifle their giggles. Being able to spin an amusing yarn is part of island life and therefore it is a big part of Ardbeg's approach. You can hear some of them, including Donald's tale of the Killer Donkey here: ardbeg.com/ardbeg/islay/ gigs-yarns As its cult following grew, bottles of Ardbeg started popping up everywhere, even in the Hollywood movie 'Constantine' where Keanu Reeves wrestles with good and evil demons.
There's a bottle centre stage. This inspired us to explore Ardbeg's darker more sinister alter ego...[2006: 27,186 Committee Members]
SOME THING'S 'A-FOOT' ON ISLAY
On Islay, just north of the Distillery's water source (a loch), there is a place called 'Airigh Nam Beist'. It means 'shelter of the beast' in Gaelic and is pronounced 'arram-na-beast'.
We set out to create and market a new bottle in the Ardbeg Whisky range named after this spooky place! In this way, we could claim this corner of the island.
We mailed out a little book containing a SPOOF scary legend surrounding Islay's beast - a short horror story - written as if it was penned by one of the Islanders.
We set out to make a virtue out of scaring the jeeperscreepers out of people. Everyone was going to need a stiff drink one would need after reading the tale. We created a bookmark, which acted as the order form and deliberately mailed the book to drop on Halloween - the scariest night of the year - heightening the tension of the tale! The legend we created has since become folklore. I picked up a book about Islay the other month and there it was, as if the tale had been around for centuries.
I had a wee scary moment of my own with this campaign, I entered it into the D&AD awards for best copy and the campaign was nominated to go into the annual. I was delighted, Bex, my writer, was delighted. But a few weeks later the award was snatched away from us - I had neglected to take notice of the, 'Must have been commercially released between such and such a date' rule and our entry had missed deadline by a day or two. My writer had a few choice words for me over that. You could say she was beastly to me.
Ardbeg creatively has always teased and enticed Committee members with anecdotes and tales from the island. With this campaign, we wanted to let them know that something was indeed 'a-foot' on Islay, creating the legend of our own peat monster 'sasquatch'. Usually we just tickle their funny bones, this time we tingled their spines!
L'ENFANT TERRIBLE OF WHISKY 'ARDBEG SELLS OUT!'
This was the criticism leveled at Glenmorangie in some whisky circles when they announced they were to sell to the French company, LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world's largest and by far the most successful purveyor of luxury goods. Many people said it was the end of the line for the Ardbeg Committee as we knew it - once LVMH got their finest calfskin leather, fur lined mitts on Ardbeg, they'd change it beyond recognition, is what many whisky lovers said. But that honestly couldn't be further from the truth. Ardbeg has thrived under the French fashion house's ownership. And for probably this reason - CREATIVITY.
In LVMH, creativity is celebrated. I think this direct quote from Harvard Business Review by their founder, Bernard Arnault, best sums up their approach: "...when it comes to creativity, if you think and act like a typical manager around creative people-with rules, policies, data on customer preferences, and so forth-you will quickly kill their talent.
Our whole business is based on giving our artists and designers complete freedom to invent without limits." In an organisation on this scale, ensuring the correct feedback trickles down the line from top to bottom (where I reside) as clearly as the whisky does down over the tonsils is a must. Marc Hoellinger, Global Marketing & Brand Strategy Director for Moet-Hennessy & LVMH Group, who is based in Paris, calls Ardbeg their 'l'enfant terrible'.* Our UK clients David White, Director of Marketing and Communications and Allan Little, Brand Manager, insist we plan meticulously and we know now, strategically and creatively, what we will be doing in 2-3 years time in market. If you're running a global business, the markets need to know as far in advance as possible what's around the corner for the brand so they can allocate resource and plan effectively. Although we do like to throw in the odd surprise from time to time.
Still relatively niche, Ardbeg has been allowed a certain liberté to rock the boat and generally break rules. Ardbeg is a rascal at heart. But no doubt as its stature grows, so will its responsibility to grow up and behave in a way befitting of the world's ultimate Islay Malt.
*Definition: A French expression, traditionally referring to a child who is terrifyingly candid by saying embarrassing things to adults, especially parents. Also has come to mean unorthodox, genius, striking or rebellious. [2005: 36,799 Committee Members] ARDBEG - THE ENVY OF ISLAY Leading up to the sale we thought we'd be our mischievous selves and play with the luxury category Islay-stylie. In a market rapidly expanding, the biggest challenge facing whisky brands is that of managing diminishing aged stock, as demand grows worldwide. Malt whiskies are sold by age - often the older the whisky, the greater the value.
Ardbeg created a special bottling to set out Ardbeg's luxury credentials and to open up new markets for Ardbeg's premium expressions - thereby creating desire for, and elevating the whole Ardbeg range.
Great malt takes anything from 10-12 years to be ready.
This product - Ardbeg 1965, priced at £2100 - was an extremely rare and limited whisky at 40 years old. There were just 261 bottles in existence. Therefore, our challenge was to make sure we realised the maximum value for each bottle, but crucially not just in monetary terms - but in awareness of the brand overall.
The key to creating truly luxurious brands is to make them unattainable and out of reach - so desirability trickles down the range. So this was a very different challenge - we set out to catapult the Ardbeg whisky brand into the luxury arena, positioning this expression of Ardbeg as a luxury item, out of the budget of most of our loyal fan base, then about 36,000 Ardbeg Committee members in 112 countries. So we had to create desire and noise without alienating them, as well as winning over the more negative naysayers post LVMH acquisition. Using a typically Ardbeg tongue-in-cheek approach, we managed to achieve this and strengthen the brand at the same time.
Ardbeg's bottle is green and green is the colour of envy. We positioned Ardbeg 1965 as 'The Envy of Islay', deliberately setting out to provoke envy in millions - not simply target the lucky 261 who could afford a bottle. The viral email we created had an intriguing link. The link took the recipient to a website where a subtitled film played - the world's first Gaelic advertisement.
Our film, set at the Distillery, featured a Gaelic-speaking cast of island women broken-hearted that they couldn't get their hands on a bottle of 1965 due to its rarity. Our film cheekily parodied a Chanel advert from the 80s - a well-heeled luxury brand. The epic production values belies our relatively small budget (the entire viral was shot on green screen) and many of the characters - including 98-year-old Lily in the opening sequence - were natives of Islay and had never acted before. After the film on the website, a translation of the Gaelic script in English takes the viewer through to information about the bottling. You can take a look here : ardbeg.com/1965 As I said our role goes well beyond marketing and we get heavily involved with NPD and packaging too. Luxury is about discovering hidden layers, so our strategy included designing the product from scratch. Sand from the shores of Islay was included in the making of the glass for the bottle.
Every 'hand-blown' bottle was hand-numbered and that a Stealth Mark (kind of digital fingerprint) was applied into the seal during hand-bottling to prove authenticity. It came in an impressive museum-like case, together with a small miniature, giving owners the chance of a taste ¬- making it even more of a collector's item.
Within hours of the email push, the whisky chatrooms worldwide were buzzing with information and rumour.
There was coverage in nearly every UK newspaper - as well as the media abroad. The story even featured in a double page spread of GQ magazine, a firm sign of its new-found style status.
Despite a tiny budget, the campaign achieved worldwide media coverage. The brand was elevated into the luxury category overnight, with 154,304 web hits making the core range more desirable. 77% of visits were international.
Every bottle of 1965 sold within days.
The brand profile soared and the noisy coverage generated online and in the press worldwide made this campaign one of Ardbeg's most successful of all time. With just one email push and no advertising support.
AVERAGE JOEs, MANUELs, LUDWIGs....
Is there such a thing as an average Ardbeg Committee Member? Do they think, feel and behave in a particular way? On the face of it there seems little to unite such a disparate Diaspora of people. They cannot be defined by status, wealth or geography, by gender or age, making them as complex - and as tricky to pin down - as the whisky they drink. From Polo playing socialites in Buenos Aires to Death Metal head bangers from Berlin, you'll find them all represented.
SURELY THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF LOYALTY...
Ardbeg is a cult brand. It gets under your skin. It takes on a special significance to people in much the same way a band's music or lyrics might.
We know of people who have named their houses, boats and even children Ardbeg. But perhaps the ultimate expression of dedication and devotion is to literally brand yourself with the logo. Many have tattooed their bodies with the mark of the whisky already ingrained on their souls. I've yet to see a Tesco Clubcard Tattoo. This is loyalty on a different scale.
They are all joined by a common desire, to get as close to the brand as possible and feel special. None more so than when our Distillery manager was greeted early one morning by Committee member Patrick Brocard standing in the Stillroom in the altogether. Apparently at 3.15am, he had set out from Bruichladdich (a distillery on the other side of the island) on his bicycle, in order to reach Ardbeg in time for the start of the early tour. On his way, he had pedalled through a heavy downpour, necessitating the removal of his sodden garments so that they could be dried in the warm sanctuary of the Stillroom. On another occasion, a true Ardbeggian postponed his honeymoon and flew from Germany in order to accompany a replacement still in a little boat from the mainland to Islay - then slept right next to it all night in the Warehouse. (We haven't heard if he's still married.) Even though they share little in common demographically or even culturally, they are all our zealous evangelists, spreading the word about their favourite malt from their homes, at bars and in chatrooms. They discuss Ardbeg with fellow enthusiasts, they introduce Ardbeg to friends, and they recommend it to their local retailers and bar owners.
[2010: 42,344 Committee Members] THE DAY WE BROKE THE INTERNET It was a scene reminiscent of Star Trek where Scotty shrieks: "The engines canny take it Captain!", this was the scene that greeted me the morning of 15th February 2010 at 7am.
Every year on Islay we have a party at the Distillery and invite our thousands of friends from around the world (at that time 42,000) to join us on Islay. Usually quite a few thousand will attend. In 2010, the 10th anniversary of the Committee was a perfect opportunity for us to thank them for their contribution to building and growing the brand.
A new expression (bottling) of Ardbeg called Rollercoaster was our most ambitious to date with so many bottles to sell (13,000). Our strategy was to create anticipation around the launch of the new bottling online and then host Ardbeg 10th anniversary parties around the world, bringing new drinkers to Ardbeg.
Named Ardbeg Rollercoaster after a comment made about the flavour profile, it also beautifully described the last 10 years of the Committee which had had its ups and downs along the way. We were about to have another one - we brought the website down for 48 hours.
A teaser mailer ensured a worldwide buzz in chatrooms before the official launch. Certain that Committee members would visit the shop before the official launch, we created a holding page for the 'queue to get in'. It gave a flavour of what was to come on the 15th February, with a countdown counter on the gates to the Rollercoaster 'theme park'. The mailer directed them to ardbeg.com/rollercoaster, at 9am on February 15th where they could play a game, watch a movie, sign up for invites to worldwide celebrations and buy a bottle from our newly revamped Ardbeg online shop.
Everything was primed to ensure the online launch at ardbeg.com/rollercoaster would be 'well-attended'... Oh it was... From a mailing of 42K+ people, we had 46,096 visits... chasing 13,000 bottles. Unfortunately they all piled in at 9am on the morning of the launch and crashed the servers.
As I recall whilst thousands were trying to get in the online shop and grab a commemorative bottle, one person by sheer luck, managed to nip in and buy a solitary scarf, unaware of the bandwidth bedlam going on around her.
THE DAY I BROKE MY TOE
Fidel Castro was once given a bottle of Ardbeg by, The Right Honourable Baron Lord Robertson, the then Secretary General of NATO and native of Islay. So that year we created a revolutionary theme for Ardbeg Day, twinning Cuba with Islay. We had a 'Military-coo' at the Distillery. To promote the event we decided to camouflage a cow, namely Primrose (Cow is pronounced "coo" to use the Scottish vernacular).
A tongue-in-cheek poster was mailed featuring Distillery workers in suitably iconic Che Guevara poses. Over the years our marketing has introduced the characters at the Distillery - Committee members know the workers. We painted Primrose in harmless powder paint that rinsed off but while no animal was harmed in the making this viral... I was. How much does a cow weigh? 52 stone! I know this because the lady in question decided to take a shine to me, she never had so much attention and followed me around for an hour after the shoot treading on my toes and snapping one in the process. The lengths we go to for our art. See Primrose at ardbeg.com/ardbeg/committee/movies
Through everything we do, we seek to elevate the brand on the international stage. So the trade and B2B are important to us (as are the 80,000 or so people who work within the LVMH group worldwide). As a whisky revered the world over, bottles can be found in bars, off-licenses and on the shelves of enthusiasts from Stockholm to Shanghai.
So the Ardbeg Embassies were born. They are a network of official on and off trade stockists found in the four corners of the globe. They were selected for their affection for Ardbeg and to promote Ardbeg to the uninitiated, plus offer Committee members places guaranteed to stock their favourite tipple and to encourage new members to join and come together locally. Committee members can download the app that points them to their nearest Embassy wherever they are in the world.
Embassy owners are targeted in a bespoke programme of exclusive previews and one-off events to encourage them to not only generate sales, but give them a deeper understanding of the quirkiness of the brand. They are our 'Drambassadors' and our Drambassadors' handbook is their premises' bible. It's a limited edition book containing everything an Embassy owner needs to know about Islay, the Ardbeg Distillery and its whisky, while introducing the playful humour that the brand is recognised for to yet another audience. From folklore and history to some of the rather more far-fetched mythology, the book's role is as much to entertain and enthuse, as it is to educate about everything Ardbeg.
It has a key role in encouraging participation in the Embassy programme and furthering knowledge of and interaction with Ardbeg as a brand. We now have 150 Embassies worldwide and growing year by year.
With seven other distilleries on the doorstep of our small island, we want to maintain our reputation as the ultimate 'Islay' malt. So long ago we devised a core strategy to ensure that the Distillery and the island are entwined in the consumers' minds. We set out to 'own Islay', so that whenever Islay whisky is mentioned, it is Ardbeg that is front of mind. We took the decision to name our whisky bottlings topographically and gradually, mile by mile, take over Islay. This I hope will go some way to explaining the logic to what might seem unpronounceable bottlings, like Uigeadail and Arigh Nam Beist.
JUMPING SPECIES INTO UNCHARTERED WATERS
As the Committee has grown in momentum and cache, it's gaining a younger profile, drinkers who have 'graduated' to the peatier, more challenging malts like Ardbeg. And we are keen to attract more of them.
Owning Islay is one thing, but many malt whisky aficionados also drink Bourbon. Bourbon itself attracts younger drinkers and acts as a stepping-stone to fine malts. Also, the US market is huge. So we looked across the pond for our next inspiration.
Ardbeg is a peaty, smoky whisky, so with an eye on the growth of this lucrative bourbon market, Ardbeg used flamed-blasted 'alligator char' barrels (like bourbon) to create a new bottling. Ardbeg Alligator was to be trialed by the Ardbeg Committee, before a potential worldwide roll out.
At the time, the Bourbon market was predicted to grow by 25% in the UK alone by 2016 (Mintel 2010). Ardbeg was keen to tap into this valuable market to sustain and grow its position. Bourbon from the deep south of America is stored in flame-blasted charred barrels - a number 4 'char' results in the wood of the cask resembling an alligator's hide. This gives Bourbon its unique style and taste. Using these ex Bourbon barrels, we created Ardbeg Alligator - a whisky from the 'deep south of Islay' with a spicy bite, designed to appeal to the Bourbon fan. [2011: 52,201 Committee Members]
THE ISLAY-GATORS TALE....
Being a member of the Committee entitles whisky fans to be the first to hear about new developments at the Distillery and the first to try new bottlings. Committee Members are highly vocal on and offline in their opinions of different expressions of Ardbeg. Like a gigantic, worldwide focus group, they are always willing to be consulted and are happy to offer their views.
As soon as Committee bottlings are released they are reviewed online in blogs and on forums at the earliest opportunity. Favourable reviews encourage others to buy. As before, each campaign must root Ardbeg back to Islay and in every communication there is a grain of truth. With our tongue ever so slightly wedged in our cheek, our 'research' showed us that a small alligator-like creature had genuinely been discovered in the Highlands in 1894. So we brought to light the alleged existence of a legendary creature, native to Islay called the Islay-gator, "A creature much more ferocious than its cousins in Florida," according to the Islay resident featured in our 'croc-umentary'. The bottling was a sell out. See it here: www.ardbeg.com/gator
SPACE - THE FINAL FRONTIER!
We always try to push our marketing endeavours to the very limits - so why not the outer limits? As well as 'owning Islay', we set out to 'OWN SPACE'. In association with US based space research company NanoRacks LLC, based in Houston Texas, Ardbeg is taking part in a two-year experiment to test the effect of zero gravity on maturation.
Vials containing a class of compounds known as 'terpenes', also known as Ardbeg-crafted molecules, were blasted off in to space on 30th October 2011 to be placed within the International Space Station, and are due to return in 2 years time. To whet people's appetites and in celebration of Ardbeg's first experiment in space, Ardbeg released a limited edition 12 Years Old Single Malt Whisky named Galileo.
This is arguably the biggest thing Ardbeg has done in recent years in terms of generating publicity for the brand. It is also a bit of a coup d'état amongst our peers, as we will go down in history as the first spirit in space. We can never be bettered! We needed to tap into the mystery surrounding the experiment happening thousands of miles away above all our heads - in the International Space Station.
To mark this, we drew inspiration from the father of modern astronomy with the launch of Ardbeg Galileo. [2012: 66,893 Committee Members]
This latest bottling celebrated Ardbeg's ambition to go where no whisky had gone before, in one giant leap for the whisky industry. This specially bottled limited edition was released on 1st September 2012 to celebrate the most audacious adventure ever undertaken by Ardbeg and their ambition to go where no whisky had gone before, in one giant leap for the whisky industry. As well as developing a visual identity/packaging/events programme, for the bottling we were tasked with selling 60,000 bottles.
In addition to the Committee, we set out to target key, influential whisky bloggers, who could help us spread our message wider, to bring non Ardbeg Committee members on board. Bloggers were sent a press pack silver rocket capsule with a miniature bottle of Galileo and a collectable necktag.
When the Committee started in 2000 all communications were via post. However, with over now over 87,000 members in 141 countries, while we still send mailings, we now mainly concentrate on digital for our comms.
Ardbeg Committee Members received an email inviting them to 'watch this space' driving them to ardbeg.com to find out more about the space experiment. They then received a follow up email on the day of 'launch' driving them to ardbeg.com/galileo. Each market received a custom email relevant to their country. Once at the website, they could watch a short film 'Ardbeg's Gone Space Aged!' They could also create their own astro-nut e-card to send to friends across planet earth.
They were then directed to the shop to buy the exclusive Committee bottling.
As our Space Aged film was played through YouTube, we had the opportunity to gain extra reach from non-Committee Members.
60,000 bottles sold out within 48 hours.
Overwhelming positivity received by the Committee - caskstrength.net bloggers wrote "We can't think of a distillery in recent memory who seems to have as much fun with their bottlings - and give their fans something other than just the liquid itself to talk about." The enthusiastic pilot has paved the way for a potential worldwide general release and in future, segmentation and specific targeting of the smoky malt drinkers market worldwide. You haven't heard the last of Ardbeg and space - the spirit is orbiting the planet now and is due to touch down back on earth in Autumn 2014. Watch this space.
WHERE NEXT FOR ARDBEG?
Well that would be telling! If Patrick had asked me to tell the story of Ardbeg a few years ago I'd have had to decline.
Ardbeg is authentic and we want to keep it that way. And up to a few years ago, Story's role as the creative agency was largely only known by those in the know. But with the Internet, you can't keep a secret very long.
There has been an army of people over the years that have worked on Ardbeg and its impossible to name them. But CRM programmes are not made a success by just us marketing people. To properly implement a CRM programme, everyone in the client organisation has to be on board with the whole concept. You can't buy and just plug in a bit of software and you're off. For Ardbeg, everybody's involved in interacting with the customers, from the mash men who help distill the product to the team at the Distillery visitor's centre right through to marketing and sales and the people at the Agency. Everybody has a role to play in keeping the customer close to the brand. And keeping Ardbeg, The Ultimate Islay Malt. [NOW: 87,562 Committee Members]
You don't have to appreciate whisky to appreciate Ardbeg's Story. The rules (or lack of) of quite how Ardbeg has managed to punch way beyond its size, is something any brand can achieve if it follows these three simple rules.
Rule 1. Does the idea challenge the category? (e.g. firing whisky into space orbit) Rule 2. Is it true? There must be a grain of truth in everything you do, just a grain will do though (e.g. Alligators on Islay) Rule 3. No rules. (e.g. No written briefs!) It's that simple. It's that difficult. It's been that much fun.
-Dave Mullen (Committee Member No. 1967) Executive Creative Director of Story
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