As Jameson launches its warm and welcoming campaign, starring Aisling Bea, Marketing Director Brendan Buckley tells Laura Swinton why the brand’s affable sense of accessibility is more relevant than ever
From heavy crystal tumblers in stuffy, walnut-panelled clubrooms to the sleek square designer glassware in steely-cool, sky-scraping offices and bars, whiskey brands have historically tended to favour an image of exclusivity and elitism. Not Jameson, though. The popular Irish Distillers’ brand has always preferred a wry wink and a warm welcome - and its new campaign Widen the Circle from TBWA\Dublin distills that feeling into a campaign that’s quenching the thirst of egalitarian Gen Z and everyone who’s keen for a bit of IRL connection.
Widen the Circle
The key to understanding the Jameson brand lies within the product. If the advertising is warm, welcoming and grounded, then that’s because the whiskey itself is.
“We have crafted, for many decades, a product that is purposefully smooth, purposefully accessible. Using marketing speak, that has been behind the thought of positioning it as a welcoming brand. It’s actually smooth and accessible - because let’s face it, if you’re new to whiskey (and I’m a grizzled, experienced whiskey drinker) it’s not the easiest drink to immediately latch onto,” explains Brendan.
While inclusivity and diversity are very much trends across the sector - as brands try to shapeshift in order to appeal to Gen Z - in many cases, it’s a dramatic departure after years of exuding an elitist, aspirational and heavily macho vibe. Brendan says that Jameson has always eschewed that approach - and even the other brands in the Irish Distillers portfolio, with very distinctive voices of their own, still share that amiable sensibility. “I would suggest that many whiskey brands, for years, actually played on the inaccessibility, the exclusivity of whiskey. I’m not saying this to praise ourselves, but we were saying whiskey doesn’t need to be exclusive, whiskey doesn’t need to be something you need to work at. Whiskey should be more accessible. We’ve been saying that for decades, so a lot of our campaigns emphasise that product dimension. I’m thinking about campaigns like ‘taste above all else’. That’s why we really zoned in on ‘triple distilled, twice as smooth’ as a product feature and functional benefit that we played with for years.”
It's also crucial to understand the humour and affable culture that the brand cultivates and what Brendan calls ‘the single most important mantra for the brand’. “We’ve gone though, as every brand does, various models one uses to define our brand and one thought that has lasted multiple iterations of our brand structure, and that is that we are ‘a serious whiskey that doesn’t take itself too seriously’. That’s a thought that every single person that comes to work in the brand is indoctrinated with on day one,” he says.
With this new Widen the Circle campaign, starring Irish comedian Aisling Bea, the Jameson team and their agency TBWA\Dublin have translated that into more emotional terms. The campaign plays on the idea that Jameson is a communal, friendly drink that fosters kinship. That term - kinship - has been an important idea to unlock. As Brendan reflects, it’s an old-fashioned word that speaks to Jameson’s roots while also encapsulating a need that modern audiences have as they become increasingly disconnected.
Given the message of being welcoming and accessible, it’s notable that the team has cast a woman as their spokesperson. Curiously, although Brendan says that, when casting for a spokesperson, the team weren’t necessarily specifically looking for a woman, it just so happened that many of the suggestions were women.
“As soon as Aisling was mooted we thought, yeah, she absolutely epitomises what a lot of the brand stands for. She’s naturally very warm, very welcoming. She has that tone of voice. If you look at the advertising work over the years, we always talk about the ‘wink of the eye’. There’s a humour and a wit to Jameson,” says Brendan.
Luck of the Irish
Aisling is also quite unmistakably Irish - and Irishness plays an interesting and nuanced role for the brand. On the one hand, it’s an important part of Jameson’s provenance. As a nationality, it comes with certain associations - which conveniently link up with the Jameson values and tonality. That plays well in the brand’s biggest market, the USA, and across Europe. However, Brendan says that Ireland and Irishness don’t necessarily have the same currency in other markets, particularly across Asia. Moreover, the self-effacing humour is also tweaked for those markets that are looking for a bit more swagger.
“In some markets ‘there’s just very little understanding [of Ireland]. Interestingly, when you show the greenness, freshness, the purity of Ireland it really resonates. Certain brands are looking for brands with a bit more stature, so we have to balance the understated nature of Jameson with a bit more swagger. That’s where you really have to understand the local cultural nuances,” explains Brendan. “We say global brand, local energy.”
All in all, Brendan calls Jameson an international brand, meaning they are present in lots of international markets and on the cusp of stepping up to becoming a ‘truly global brand’. Looking at their territories, they’re huge across Europe, North America and in Sub Saharan Africa they’re a top three brand. The brand is present in India and Brendan reckons that in the next 15 years it could be the brand’s second biggest market. In Nigeria and Kenya, they’re the number one whiskey brand.
“It was one of these things where the timing was right. We’ve already got a really strong distribution network in the country. There’s undoubtedly a draw towards Western Spirits, but back to the proposition, Western spirits are typified by exclusivity and typified by the boys club. Our proposition around the accessibility, warmth and inclusiveness has really resonated in Sub Saharan Africa.”
Brendan has been working with Irish Distillers, a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard, for 20 years and has a long view of the journey that his brands have been on, as well as the whiskey sector generally. He notes that drinks trends come in cycles - where whiskey boomed in the 1940s and 1950s, it was replaced by vodka in the 80s and 90s. And we’re all still sleeping off the hangover from the gin boom of the 2010s. But, says Brendan, whiskey has never been as dynamic as it is today.
Part of that whiskey whirlwind has been driven by the craft movement mega-trend. The desire for provenance and authenticity has played right into the hands of a sector that can evoke the patina of aged casks and the heritage of ancient techniques with ease - though Brendan wryly notes that the word ‘craft’ has been broadened and overused to the point that it ‘has become somewhat nebulous’. The other driver is significantly more contemporary - social media has allowed whiskey lovers to seek out and share new discoveries and connect with an international community of enthusiasts.
Of the six lead brands under the roof of Irish Distillers, Jameson is by far the biggest and highest priority. To get an idea of scale, Jameson sold 5.8 million cases in the first half of its current financial year and has high hopes that it can break 10 million by the end of the fiscal year in July.
But there’s just as much to learn from the other brands under the Irish Distillers umbrella. The second priority for Brendan and his team is the ultra premium Redbreast brand - and while it’s a more complex and expensive drink, definitely aimed at a slightly different group of consumers, the team have still mastered a very approachable and warm sensibility, albeit one with a more sophisticated tone and humour.
In January 2020, the brand launched a new mascot - an animated robin with gentle deadpan humour and a rough hewn, textured design. He’s given a voice and distinctive presence to a brand that was already growing in popularity. While it’s more thoughtful and ponderous than the gregarious Jameson, it still reflects the good-humoured culture within Irish Distillers. “I always knew the Robin was an icon we should be making more of,” says Brendan. “Ok it’s not marketing rocket science, to take a brand icon and allow him in this instance it is a him, to be the voice of the brand and bring that irreverence. Again, if you look at ultra premium whiskeys are incredibly serious, they talk about how the whiskey has been made for generations and so forth. So yes, Redbreast is made brilliantly by some incredibly passionate people but what really connects with people is that slightly irreverent look at the world.”
Redbreast has been growing 25% year-on-year and is the biggest selling single pot still Irish whiskey in the world. That growth has been fuelled by social media, which has allowed enthusiasts to share. Given that, there’s an intelligent and responsive, social-first marketing approach. Animation company Jelly has created a suite of easily adaptable animations that can be used to quickly pull together executions for social platforms.
“Of course, I’d say it was the brilliant marketing that was the genesis of it all… but truth be told, this is the archetype of a word-of-mouth brand,’ explains Brendan. “Long before the robin came into existence, this brand was going through the classic adoption curve - early adopters finding it, and the the rise of digital social media absolutely amplified and accelerated it. Fifteen years ago if people heard about us it would be in the bar, with the bartender saying ‘you gotta try this’. Social media has absolutely accelerated the growth of Redbreast. The marketing leverages that heavily. The character was designed to live in this social media world. We work with a great agency on that and we’ve got a great team of copywriters. I always look forward to reading the scripts because I know it’s going to be funny.”
As important as real-life connection and a sense of tangibility is important to both brands, the marketing team keeps a close eye on rapidly evolving and proliferating platforms.
“We stay close to our consumers, what media they’re using and how they use it. Connections planning is now a mainstay of every marketing comms team. You need to understand what are the proper touchpoints for your consumers. The consumer of Redbreast is quite different to the consumer of Jameson, so the touchpoint planning is quite different,” says Brendan.
Looking forward, Brendan sees that experiential marketing is ready to make a huge comeback and, given the content and messaging of the latest campaign, that’s going to be particularly important for Jameson. While Brendan is very clear that the campaign was never designed or intended to be a ‘post-Covid campaign’, the Widen the Circle platform does create a lot of opportunities to foster real-world connections for an audience that has been starved of that for two years. Indeed, the new Jameson campaign has very deliberately launched just a few weeks ahead of St Patrick’s Day. The brand will be laying on a number of events, including a live streamed performance by Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. on 17th March.
Sustainability looks set to be another major topic for the whole of the Irish Distillers team. While the whiskey producer has already made significant steps in terms of eliminating plastics from secondary packaging, using recycled glass in bottles, Brendan says it’s important to keep pushing. “Sustainability is a massive, massive topic and how brands respond to that and be responsible citizen brands,” says Brendan. “It’s no longer enough to be strong there, we need to be beyond that. We need to declare and demonstrate that we’re additive to our society and planet. There’s a lot of stuff coming from our production colleagues, there’s a lot of work going on there from a carbon neutrality point of view that we will be announcing in months to come.”
It’s also notable that as younger generations display more open-minded attitudes and a greater sense of egalitarianism, Jameson and, more broadly, Irish Distillers is finding that its rather old-fashioned sense of kinship is setting it up well for the future.
“We’re a brand that’s comfortable in its own skin, we don’t need to project a particular sort of image of ourselves. The phrase we used earlier was ‘come as you are’ - we invited people to come as they are. They don’t need to adopt a persona,” reflects Brendan. “That’s still true and I believe more relevant than ever. We speak to a lot of Gen Z consumers and that actually resonates with them, and they appreciate the fact that we are a brand that has held true to this approach.”