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Why whisky is failing online

Stewart Steel, digital director at branding and packaging consultancy Good, believes whisky brands are failing to achieve effective online differentiation

Stewart Steel Good

What’s the purpose of a whisky website? Think about the whisky websites you’ve visited in the past. Do any of them stand out? Or are they fairly interchangeable – Scottish imagery, generic cocktail recipes, an indefinable emphasis on heritage and quality?

In a modern twist on the ‘tree falling in the woods’ question – I’d like to ask: ‘if a whisky brand didn’t have a website, would anyone even notice?’ 

Whisky brands currently don’t do a very good job of differentiating themselves online. They stand out only from other categories of drinks, thanks to the conventions mentioned above. You’d be hard pressed to mistake a single malt website for, say, one for spiced rum. 

You might argue that this is partly down to the nature of the category itself. Yes, many whisky brands focus on quality, time and heritage.

But that can’t be a defence for creating a totally indistinct online presence. If your brand claims any points of difference from the distillery 40 miles down the road, then this needs to be expressed online as clearly as in any other form of marketing. 

And while social media activity might be nice, for drinks brands, regulations mean that the age-gated website remains the central online presence. As well as this, the demographic of the average whisky drinker doesn’t necessarily lend itself to Twitter campaigns. 

Just this week, I visited the Haig Club website. I loved the brand values and the design of the new Beckham-affiliated whisky. You can tell the thought, care and attention (and cash) that has gone into developing it, and the intention to create something that looks and feels very different. But then you go online and it’s… terrible. The website is an afterthought. Despite creating a whisky that hopes to break new ground and attract drinkers to the category, the website fails on all these counts. 

This is the challenge for whisky websites in general. Whisky brands are used to creating beautifully realised products, from bottles to brochures. The quality of packaging and marketing materials is high, reflecting the craft and effort that has gone into the liquid itself.

The quality of whisky websites is not high. They might be nice to look at, but they generally don’t reflect in any way the experience associated with the brand.

And without a doubt, the most engaging online experiences are built around providing these services and experiences that are associated with a brand.

This is territory that is largely unknown to drinks brands but it is key to demonstrating how the brand comes alive online. Haig Club, for example, is about trying new things – so how about partnering with some unique experiences and helping people find them?

Some whisky brands focus on gifting, and while the personalised labels that some brands offer can be a nice touch, they’re not a unique brand proposition. Anyone can do it, and no one can ‘own’ it. Given that around 60 per cent of single malt is bought as a gift, there’s huge potential here for brands to develop new ways to hone that gift experience online, rather than just popping a bottle in the post to your dad.

It’s not all bad news – some brands are making steps in the right direction. Grants, for example, has a small but clever device on its website, where fans can send ‘IOUs’, toasting and thanking their friends and those that have helped them in life. It doesn’t seem to have taken off hugely as yet, with most photos of staff and ambassadors, but it’s a nice idea that ties in well with its gifting theme.

It is not easy – but if whisky wants to keep up online – and keep attracting new generations of drinkers – it is essential to begin to try to get this right.

6 December 2014