Now before you get all worked up about children and drinking and make a call to social services to enquire after this poor boy who spent his childhood drinking whisky, let me put this into some chronological context.
Many, many years ago, and I mean many, many, years ago, when I was still in school, a time when talking about Nelson Mandela would get you 90 days detention without trial, I worked at a local hotel. It was an upmarket establishment, frequented by clientele from round the world. It boasted a famous restaurant, a smart bar area serving maybe 7 or 8 different whiskies, a lot in those days. The most popular whisky, by far, was Bell’s.
It made sense then, when I started drinking whisky, (at age 18, of course, not a day earlier, yes, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) that Bell’s was my first choice. Nearly thirty years later, I enjoy a wee nip of Bell’s on the odd occasion when I want to reminisce. But that’s wrong of me. I neglected my old companion and brought it out too rarely.
A few days ago a beautiful bottle of Bell’s arrived on my desk, engraved with my name and while the whisky is the same, the packaging is different. It is still a good whisky. I opened up the bottle, poured myself a wee dram and started to think.
A lot has changed with Bell’s. I conducted hundreds of Bell’s tastings for the public, deconstructing the whisky, delving into the different malts and grains, showcasing its versatility and sharing one of the world’s most famous whiskies. The days of Bell’s Whisky being associated with golf and fly-fishing are no more. The birthday cards and newsletters are things of the past. Anybody who had the pleasure of meeting Alan Shuman, Tommy Larkan & Derek Cuthbert, the best team of brand ambassadors I’ve ever seen, will remember them every time they sip on a Bell’s. They spent decades regaling packed bars with stories of whisky and Scotland, promoting their whisky with passion and knowledge…ah, those were the days, my friend.
But it is a different world nowadays and new brooms or new marketing teams make changes. In the corporate world, whisky is a source of numbers. In the whisky world, whisky is a source of pleasure. I can’t fault the corporates for making changes if the numbers make sense, but I think what happened with Bell’s is a bit of a shame. It went from big budget, hugely successful campaigns targeting whisky drinkers in groups and one on one, to television adverts. Sure, that advert about the father who learns to read – brilliant. But we need more. We need the personal touch.
The catchphrase “Give that man a Bell’s” is still used, but how many people have tasted the whisky? What happened to the thousands of members of the Bell’s Fraternity of Connoisseurs? What happened to the CRM program that ran for years, keeping Bell’s Whisky lovers updated, informed, and reminded about Bell’s Whisky?
Sometimes brand managers are not whisky people, but numbers people. I think we need a balance. Whisky brands need numbers people who love whisky, or whisky people who love numbers. Both the brand and the balance sheet will benefit.
The whisky is good and I enjoy it. If I go to a bar, I may order it and there is always a bottle at my home. But what of the regular whisky drinker who used to drink Bell’s but may have moved on. I think it’s time for Bell’s marketing to rise up and get whisky lovers talking about it again, and drinking it.
I grew up on Bell’s and I’ll be drinking it way into my later years. I hope that more people do.