Do distillers need to tell their own story? 10.01.13

Whisky and story-telling go hand-in-hand. Over the years Scotland’s commercial distillers have become experts in creating product stories that have made their brands irresistible to consumers around the world. These stories have helped create an industry that is today our country’s number one export.  

Traditionally these companies have adopted a low-profile within Scottish life and in an age of corporate responsibility this has left the sector open to criticism. They have sadly become a soft target. 

Holyrood’s advisers have attacked them for failing to deliver a ‘fair return’ within their country of origin. Because many are registered outside Scotland, the argument is that profits find their way overseas rather than creating wealth within our national boundaries. The solution? A £1 per bottle levy to swell Scottish Government coffers by £1bn a year. 

Simple mathematics, but the nuances are much more subtle and grossly underestimate the contributions already made by distillers to our domestic economy and global reputation. Whisky is our leading international export. It creates economic and cultural benefits supporting thousands of jobs, places Scotland on the global tourist trail and ensures elements of our culture are celebrated in over 200 countries.   

The very companies under attack, for delivering unreasonably low returns, have created the industry we know today. They have done so at great expense, investing billions of pounds in broadening distribution, opening up new channels and building a globally aspirational category brand. It is their global investment that is driving Scotland’s local production.  

The challenge for distillers is that not many know or appreciate this story. For a sector populated by consummate brand-builders this is something that must be recognised as a failing. As they went about building some of the most valuable product brands in the world, many of our top commercial distillers have neglected to nurture and develop their corporate brand stories. 

As our distillers go about contesting these proposals, now may be the time to turn their existing expertise in product branding inwards to develop their own corporate brand stories.  

Domestically-registered groups are presented with a golden opportunity to differentiate themselves as truly Scottish businesses.  By emphasising their long-standing contribution to Scottish life they have an opportunity to rise above the current unfortunate dispute.  

For those distillers registered outside Scotland the challenge is to communicate how and where they are delivering fair returns for Scotland in spite of the fact that net profits may ultimately end up elsewhere. Without their ongoing investment in brand-building, Scotland’s whisky sector would not be what it is today. 

A more pro-active approach to corporate brand-building is desperately needed. Investment in this area will open up a rich vein of positive stories for these businesses that can help them get back on the front foot in the upcoming debate with the Scottish Government.  

Failure to do so may leave them a sitting duck, open to further criticism, attack and future levies. Now is surely the time for the sector’s distillers to step out of the shadows and invest in delivering their own story. 

Jonathan Gibson
Head of Planning

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