Is Blogging Bad For Whisky?

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 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are madly trying to grasp control of online streaming of TV shows and force the technology into the confines of an outdated licensing system, so too are some whisky industry execs calling out against the expanding influence of whisky blog writers.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.

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  • It’s an interesting scenario that Tim Forbes writes about. I spent the past four years working in the music industry and unsurprisingly there was a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth about social media, which isn’t quite as loud as it used to be. I think what Forbes and others are writing about is the early stages of their channels of communication not being quite what they used to be. The good news is, even in a tough economy, the economics can potentially be rewarding – but different.

    To briefly encapsulate the problem, Forbes mentions “Digital technology has long been regarded within the industry as an expensive inconvenience, and is paid only lip-service by most companies.” This is understandable to this point, but it’s unfortunate as it’s only going to get more and more important. What digital presents in the marketing sphere is a vastly, vastly more efficient marketing channel, and one that allows for a much more profitable relationship for the manufacturer (in this case – in the music industry we would have said “rights holder”) while also fulfilling the fan’s desire for more information (forget “the consumer” for a minute! Nobody cares about them).

    Forbes’s next most important statement here is “My suspicion is that the vast majority of malt drinkers are happy with the blurb on the back label of their favourite dram, and remain blissfully ignorant of the vitriol, inanity and shameless bootlicking prevalent on the majority of whisky blogs”

    Again, this is a difference in focus. The whisky blogs and active, vocal fans (I’m going to keep using this word instead of “consumer” or “buyer”, and you’ll see why) of whisky by and large are not in the “vast majority” column if we are reconciling against unit sales. That territory by and large is owned by the blends; a fact which I think virtually every whisky fan and blogger will readily concede. What Tim said is: 90% of whiskey *drinkers* (not fans) are satisfied with the blurb on the back label. Corollary: 10% are not satisifed. The industry also states that 90% of production goes to blend”. Corollary: 10% goes to single malts or specialty bottlings.

    What the internet and active whiskey fanbase (both of your brand and the category in general) represent is that 10%. For the most part, the 90% is going to be satisfied with the blends and their cognizance of the brand will essentially be simple: “I like Johnnie Walker Black.” Congrats – you’ve got a customer for life in a low-touch way. I sincerely hope you are able to keep them satisfied and repeat buyers! However, flip the paradigm on its head: “Could I convert these low-touch, infrequent buyers to more frequent buyers at higher price points?” Then it becomes a very interesting question and marketing exercise.

    What the music industry has started to see is that there is a subset of an act’s fans that may not be very large in number. However, these fans are the most vocal, at times the most critical, and are less interested in standard mass-marketing activity (if at all). Sound familiar? These fans are also the ones that can be a great force of good for your business. You actually don’t want to ignore them and hope they go away because generally speaking, they represent the most active, most passionate people. The record industry has started to get very wise to this and started monetizing the relationship in ways that don’t require radical re-staffing, are generally streamlined with existing functions, and are seeing a new channel emerge that can frequently show more net profits and offer deeper loyalty.

    The equation is simple: Connect with fans + give a reason to buy = $$$. (For our many Scottish friends that would of course be £££) If you offer your fans something – even if it seems frivolous to you – it may be a huge opportunity to your fans that they treasure. It may also be something that deepens their connection with their brand and increases their loyalty. In the music industry this is frequently upsold with special packaging touches, etc. In the whisky industry this may be access to certain experiences or products that you can’t come across – small limited access bottlings to new make or something like that.

    A personal anecdote: I love Caol Ila. Caol Ila doesn’t really have much of a presence online. They’re busy making whisky for blends and don’t seem to have time for me or other like-minded people. It’s a shame because I’d love to know more about what’s coming out. That newest release – Caol Ila Moch – it just snuck out and I think the first anyone heard about it was on a store front page. There’s not a ton of information out there and I would love to hear more. But Caol Ila’s not speaking, so I’m going to have to go to the only source giving any information – the blogs. I’m in that 10% that just isn’t going to be swayed by the only copy being a little etymology of the latest batch of Marketing Gaelic and some overthought tasting notes (“a tugboat of lemon citrus bravely and dutifully pulls alongside a fresh, grassy field as a wisp of peat and smoke as thin as an angel’s hair wafts by”). I’d love to know more, the story, the what & why.

    Meanwhile I watch the Ardbegs and Bruichladdichs of the world super-serve their customers. Some would say it’s over-done, others can’t get enough of the latest committee release (they sell out faster than the Rolling Stones) or scan listings of valinches like they were a tapers’ catalog of Grateful Dead shows. I see that as a fan of Caol Ila and moderately interested in the others and think that maybe I may spend more time and money with Bruichladdich where I can have more unique and special tasting opportunities.

    Anyway, Scotch Noob, my apologies for an extremely over-long comment. I have spent a lot of time in the last decade working on fan connections and marketing to your super fans, and I really would hate to see some of my favorite brands lose favor and slip (or worse yet, close) because they are unable to adapt to both changing tastes in the market as well as a changed landscape in marketing to your core fans.

  • @Chumpington Wow! Thanks for the insightful comment! I think it may have been more words than my original post. 😉

    You bring up several good points – one in particular, that the vocal minority does indeed have an influence that is wider in scope than their regular “consumer” peers. This concept is covered in detail by Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” (a great read). He writes about “Connectors” – people who, through their natural social networks, tend to be the ‘tipping point’ in global changes in fashion, brand recognition, and other social trends. One hipster in Soho wearing his hat inside out can cause an international fashion frenzy, through a kind of Butterfly Effect. This may be overstating it a little, but I think it illustrates the effect that your “vocal minority” can have in any industry.

    • Thanks much!

      I think the vocal 10% represents a couple things, and I think that an industry perception that it’s all bad is not the best reaction to act on.

      – The vocal 10% has self-designated their interest and willingness to buy when presented with a compelling product. If you’re not engaged in them and don’t have any sort of mailing list or baseline relationship with them, you’re missing the opportunity to present your core devotees with new or limited run products (e.g., Caol Ila Moch) and risk putting them off in general.

      – The vocal 10% is likely to have taste leaders among them – Gladwell’s “Connectors”. For a nascent direct-marketing effort, making initial contact with clear taste leaders is a good bang for the buck. Who wouldn’t want to try and get something in front of Ralfy or Serge, for instance?

      Without writing another long take, I think the Glen Thingy option shows a misguided approach to selling but can coexist with a mass-market approach. The Glen Thingy flaw is trying to compete on quality with substandard product. This would be like trying to stack a $99 Chinese-made entry-level Gibson against a limited run of 50 from the Gibson custom shop. They just aren’t in the same class of product, and you’re only going to engender bad will from the vocal minority as well as the larger public when you try and position your $29 NAS whisky as being competitive with someone’s really special $99 NAS whisky that has a relatively limited run. However, if you try and compete in the appropriate segment with a differentiated product, you stand a good chance.

      As a Glen Thingy exec, your audience is not the group who is interested in small-batch, artisinal processes with premium ingredients. If you compete against those, you’re just going to get slaughtered.

      But what if you suddenly could say, “Hey America, here’s a genuine Scotch whiskey that is a core ingredient in blends you have tried (or dreamed of trying), available as inexpensively as American whiskies. This isn’t a cheap scotch – it’s a good scotch that’s available inexpensively.” Suddenly you’ve got a more compelling argument and may be able to hook some buyers. You may not want to target the connoisseurs of your specific category but of a broader base – “Price sensitive consumers of all spirits” for instance.

      In either case, playing a more active role in communication with your brand-loyal devotees is still a winning proposition. The blogs and independent reviews, etc, rise up in response to the lack of appropriate discussion and communication that would fill that void.

  • Tim Forbes’ comment that us bloggers should “conduct themselves with a bit more awareness as to their actual position in the fundamental pecking order” is indicative of the unbelievable arrogance he and many others in the industry have towards bloggers and I would go so far as to say consumers.

    I started a scotch whisky review blog out of frustration with not being able to read independent reviews of whisky online. Your site and others have popped up since, but at the time, it seemed every site was just a commercial for some dram, that often turned out to be mediocre or worse after I spent my hard earned money and bought it. I relied on the canned advertising of sites (some disguised as bloggers) and was very disappointed.

    The reality is that there are a lot of great whiskies in the market place, but so to are there some terrible ones. The industry labels anyone (ie. bloggers) who identify the poor ones as “disrespectful, uninformed, etc.” Nice paternalistic put-downs is what I have received from the industry.

    On the other hand, I receive about 20 emails a month from ordinary people who say “thanks” for posting my real opinion about a whisky. Your site, mine and a few others are actually far and few between. Keep up the good work and to hell with the arrogant industry types. Last time I checked, I lived in a democracy where freedom of speech was respected.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jason. I agree totally. I think that in this industry, there is an unfortunate dichotomy between the bottom-shelf blend drinkers and those who appreciate good single malts. Where you have single companies deriving their income from mass-marketed, corner-cutting, brand-driven “drink to get drunk” blends and also being responsible for the promotion and preservation of high-quality spirits like single malts, you necessarily have a conflict of interest. Why bother behaving ethically and interfacing with your customers to sell an extra handful of cases of $50 bottles of malt, when you can sell 10,000 extra cases of $15 swill for the same amount of effort and expense?

      Personally, I think the world of malts would be a better place if they were all independently owned and if the responsibility for marketing was left to the independent bottlers. I’m not holding my breath, however. 😉

  • It was reading Jason’s and Charlie’s blogs as well as my disagreeing with lots of notes from Jim Murray that gave me the courage to start my own independent blog. I did not know yours but I do know it now and will certainly follow it.
    Blogging is good for good whisky and blogging is bad for bad whisky and that’s the way it should be!

  • What a great discussion. I would go so far as to say that the secondary marketing of Ardbeg through social media is largely responsible for driving up prices on “collectible” bottles and building up the allure of the brand. I mean, this IS smokey Islay whisky right? These are the guys who went out of business…for good, it seemed? Well, they can now sell a pretty young (I think that’s accurate, anyway) Correyvreckan for $75! The $70-ish bottle of Alligator (non-Committee) I bought 6 months ago probably is worth over $100 now. What a difference a decade makes! I guess I would tell the folks who aren’t leveraging social media (like Caol Ila) that they should at least try to get there. They may not have the success of Ardbeg and I do have to believe that product quality has something to do with it. But if their product is worth it, they probably will be successful.