Brand Insight in association withLBB's Brand Insight Features

Purposeful Strides: The World Has Changed and Johnnie Walker Keeps Walking

London, UK
Julie Bramham, global brand director of the iconic Diageo scotch whisky brand on the enduring power of ‘Keep Walking’ and how the team are ensuring the spirit of defiant optimism is kept fresh and relevant around the world
“I came into this job feeling like I was sitting on such a powerful two words.” 

Eighteen months ago, when Julie Bramham moved from Diageo India, where she was CMO, to head up Johnnie Walker as global brand director she did so at the height of the first wave of Covid-19. A time of unprecedented social, economic, emotional, technological and civil disruption and disquiet. It’s no easy thing focusing on a huge, international role when uncertainty pervades everything and chaos rages. But Julie had some magic words that would help her and the iconic whisky brand to power through and meet the new reality in their stride:

‘Keep Walking’.

It’s hard to quite believe that the Johnnie Walker slogan, devised in 1999 by BBH is only 23 years old. It feels like it’s etched in stone, transcending the vagaries of popular trends. And yet it could not be more relevant to the brand and its audience. And where ‘Keep Walking’ was a gentle exhortation to stay the course as the world wobbled, now, with hopes growing that we are moving into a freer phase of Covid-19, that walk has become brisker, lighter and exuberant. 

Harvey Keitel takes the first step in The Walk

Last year, Johnnie Walker launched a new global campaign with a deeply local lens. The Walkers has seen the brand partner up with change makers and influencers in markets around the globe from South Korea to Colombia, Brazil to Greece, Mexico to Thailand. Each rollout has been tailored to the specific culture and to the needs of the brand within that market - but across them all Julie says, there emerged a couple of unifying themes.

“Social regeneration was a big one,” says Julie, who explains that the pandemic had hit bars, restaurants and hotels everywhere. Moreover it had cramped and cropped people’s social lives and restricted their ability to come together. The rallying call to ‘Keep Walking’ was almost made for this situation. Diageo has donated $100million to help keep ‘on trade’ alive during the worst of the lockdowns and Johnnie Walker has a brand has invested a lot into that sector too.

“In a lot of countries the on-trades had been closed and people hadn’t been coming together and socialising together,” says Julie. “That was a major tension that it felt like Johnnie Walker and Keep Walking could play a role in. That was the major theme, but we also looked at other themes in other countries and markets that we were able to work with. I guess the big thing was providing a framework that allowed us to say, how do we nuance this based on what’s happening in culture, so that we can make it as relevant as ever.”

Julie Bramham

So how did they get there? The Walkers is the result of extensive development and research - carried out remotely, with the teams over the world. The starting point, of course, was that Keep Walking mantra - but the big question was, where do you take it?. “What that [Keep Walking] has given us has been a structure but not necessarily an answer as to how you make keep walking relevant to the next generation of consumers. And how do you make that relevant both globally and locally?”

2004's Fish sees Keep Walking through the lens of human evolution

One thing to get a handle on was the journey that the slogan had been on. When it launched in 1999, it was about individual progress, tied to career success and platformed other people’s stories, high profile stars like Harvey Keitel. Ten years later came the beloved Robert Carlyle one-shot film, The Man Who Walked Around the World, which Julie describes as a ‘timeless piece’, where Johnnie Walker was able to talk about the steps it had taken, its roots and its heritage and how it became an international favourite. And now that story has opened out, and become an all-embracing story of ‘we’ rather than just ‘me’.

Robert Carlyle in The Man Who Walked Around the World

“We think progress and forward momentum is more relevant than ever. But it has to be done in a way that’s more about collective progress, what we want to achieve together, rather than just personally,” says Julie. “That was the lens that we put on how we wanted to talk about Keep Walking. And then we asked, well, how do we do that globally? What sort of tone of voice do we want to have?” 

In Thailand, singer / actress Violette Wautier is leading the agenda to revitalise local street culture 

"Where we landed as we’re all about defiant optimism. This is how we want to show up, the impact that we want to have and how we want to make people feel. It was quite different to the old work in that we wanted it to be a bit more playful. A bit more optimistic. Inspiring is a word that’s always been big for Walker and always will be, but doing so in a way that has a lightness of touch was important. And then figuring out how you then take that through to the local?”

Supporting India's trailblazing music scene

This all came out of an extensive research and cultural insights phase. From Julie’s point of view, the pandemic-induced travel restrictions strangely gave her a more comprehensive view of what was happening around the world. She sat in on about 50 hours’ worth of research sessions around the globe - and while in ‘normal’ times Julie would have expected to fly into markets, there’s no way she could have flitted from market to market quite so comprehensively.

There were also strategic considerations to take into account for each market, depending on the brands’ lifestage and previous investment. In India, for example, where Johnnie Walker is a mega brand (and where Julie had previously worked as the Diageo CMO), the mission wasn’t to introduce but to make sure that it stayed front of mind and relevant to what’s happening in Indian culture and nightlife. There’s 250 live events unfolding, featuring contemporary artists and trailblazing music. In South Korea, where the brand is still establishing itself, they’ve teamed up with the K-pop icon CL in order to take them into the heart of Seoul’s cool and vibrant social scene. Meanwhile, in Colombia, hip hop group ChocQuibTown and other local artists launched a series of local events with other Colombian Walkers to showcase what the Keep Walking attitude means to them.

So the current executions listen to and tap into local culture. They’re also inclusive and boundary pushing in their own way. In South Korea, for example, they’ve gone all in with the aforementioned CL, quite deliberately making the decision to go for a female-fronted campaign. That being said, while The Walkers is a purposeful project, inclusive in its execution, there’s nothing leaden or lecturing. 

K-pop star CL ushers Johnnie Walker into the heart of South Korea's vibrant social scene and nightlife

“What we’ve got as we’ve thought about how we reinterpret Keep Walking in the brand is a tone of voice that has to be welcoming. We’re your co-conspirator as you keep walking, rather than a brand that’s telling you what to do. That’s not what people are looking for from a whisky brand,” says Julie. “I think that role and positioning could be quite lofty, it’s all about progress. So it has to be done with a bit of glint in the eye, because at the end of the day we’re a social brand, a brand to be enjoyed with your friends. So positioning that has got that lightness of touch that you’ve seen as a bit of through-thread in the work is really important.”

And that lightness and optimism is something that’s not only infusing audiences as they’re itching to leave the confines of the past two years, but also a very upbeat whisky industry. In the six months ending December 31 2021, Johnnie Walker saw a 31% increase in sales.

“I think whisky is really vibrant. I think it’s coming with some of the trends of craft and depth and people looking for real connections with the brands they’re buying. I think whisky is perfectly primed to head into a lot of those trends. International whisky is booming, Scotch is booming,” says Julie.

“Whisky’s is in fine form and one to watch. It’s always been vibrant to a degree, but it does feel like it’s really primed for quite a golden age as we’re leaning into a lot of these trends.”

In the coming year, The Walkers looks set to keep on putting one step in front of another and Julie is excited to find out where the brand’s adventurous strides will take it next. 

“What we’ve got there is a platform that’s fairly flexible. We’re already talking about what comes next and how that could play out… I think there’s a lot of places for it to go. I really feel that we’re just getting started actually, which is exciting.” 

And while Julie’s not giving too much away about what these next steps will be exactly, one thing that we can be sure of is that the brand will very definitely keep walking.

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