Issue 90 (September 2010) of The Whisky Magazine included a column by Tim Forbes of The Whisky Exchange Blog about whisky bloggers (a group among which he numbers) called “New Digital Emperors” (excerpt) For those of you who did not read it, here is a short summary: Whisky blogging and the use of Internet social media to discuss whisky online has burgeoned in the last few years. Tim suggests that, on the whole, whisky companies have failed to “engage” with the new world of Internet marketing, with shoddy websites and understaffed social media departments. He goes on to present a hypothetical “nightmare scenario” for a whisky exec: A malignant blogger with an axe to grind posts scathing negative reviews about a product, which shoot to the top of Internet search results, supplanting the whisky company’s expensive marketing campaign and sullying the brand. Tim then goes on to contend that whisky bloggers and the people searching for and reading their blogs are a minuscule minority of malt drinkers in an already tiny minority of whisky (blend) drinkers. He concludes with a somewhat controversial statement that us bloggers should “conduct themselves with a bit more awareness as to their actual position in the fundamental pecking order.”
Subsequent to the release of that issue of Whisky Magazine, blogger Mike C. of WhiskyParty.net reacted to the more inflammatory statements in the article in a post here. The comments which followed include a very interesting exchange between Tim and Mike. In my unenlightened opinion, Tim, in his article, used some slightly over-the-top generalizations about whisky bloggers, and Mike overreacted a little. Here are my (belated) thoughts on the matter.
I believe that, as in every industry, the influence of technology (specifically the Internet, with its readily available information and the lack of a barrier to entry in the blogosphere) is a largely positive one. Also as in every industry, the “old guard” which is used to dealing with like-minded industry insiders, marketing people, and established journalists, tends to decry the new world order. Just as TV execs are madly trying to grasp control of online streaming of TV shows and force the technology into the confines of an outdated licensing system, so too are some whisky industry execs calling out against the expanding influence of whisky blog writers. On the whole, it is argued, a negative review from an inexperienced blogger can have a detrimental and “out-of-proportion” effect on potential consumers, especially if an Internet search brings up such a blog post on the same page as the marketing material put out by the brand.
The fact is, this is true of everything on the ‘net. If you search for a car make and model, you’re as likely to find third-party reviews and anonymous forum posts as marketing material. This is one of the strengths of the Internet – a brand should develop a following based on its supportive consumer community, not on its ad budget. To take Tim Forbes’s “nightmare scenario” from a different perspective:
Let’s say you’re an exec for Glen Thingy brand whisky. You’ve been cutting corners to meet demands from bottom-shelf blenders by using a lower-cost imported barley, centralizing your maltings and warehousing, using chill filtering and caramel coloring to standardize the appearance of your malt, and replacing the antique distillery workings for more-efficient and less characterful modern outfittings. In order to drive up brand recognition and appease your parent company, you’ve jumped on the single-malt bandwagon and released a distillery bottling with no age statement, of predominately young malt with a splash of old stock. To compete with other brands, you give it a misleading name such as “Very Rare Old Reserve”, designed a snazzy label, and hiked up the asking price to $80 US a bottle, using the theory that price drives demand in the luxury products industry. You’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on an international ad campaign, including active social media experts, a cutting-edge designer website, full-page ads in the leading spirits and luxury magazines, and tv spots wherever it’s legal. Suddenly some upstart blogger living in his mother’s basement posts a scathing review of your new product, calling it a disgrace to the legacy Glen Thingy name, and publishing tasting notes of “burnt tobacco, toothpaste, and industrial detergent.” Due to quick cross-linking by other whisky blogs, this review shoots to the top of Google search rankings and supplants your carefully paid-for marketing materials on page 1, subsequently tanking your first-quarter numbers in the 21-35 demographic.
Are you going to be upset and go ranting about the unfairness of it all? Of course. Did you deserve this outcome? In my opinion, yes you did. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this happens very often, if at all… most of the Scotch brand names are fiercely protective of their heritage and staunchly ethical about the quality of their final product. In my opinion, though, it’s just as likely a series of events as the “nightmare scenario” in Forbes’s article, and personally, I think it’s a good thing. Just as democracy depends on a “balance of power,” the Internet gives the consumer a type of oversight on the spirits industry, with independent writers supporting quality products and passing on valuable independent third-party recommendations while also keeping unethical behavior in check. Bloggers are also pretty self-policing. If one writer posts an undeserved bad review, other bloggers will generally disagree in comments and followup posts. At any rate, whisky execs can complain about us, but we’re here to stay as long as there are whisky lovers listening.