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Sales not ‘key measure’ for Monkey Shoulder

For Monkey Shoulder’s global marketing manager, volume sales are not a “key measure” of success for the brand, which is continuing to focus on the “demystification” of whisky.

Monkey-Shoulder-Matt-Hawes
Matt Hawes, global marketing manager for Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch says the brand always focuses on a long-term vision

*This article was initially published in the February 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

According to a 2001 article in Forbes magazine, a cult brand “seizes the imagination of a small group who spread the word, make converts, help turn a fringe product into a mainstream name”. While its author identifies with Manolo Blahnik shoes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts – the latter of which had such a dedicated fan base it spent just 1% of its annual revenues on advertising – there are solid examples of cult followings in the spirits world.

These brands create more than just a drink in a bottle; they create a lifestyle that resonates with a loyal and energetic fan base. Typically they begin small and build slowly, gradually attracting a larger following mostly through word-of-mouth recommendations. A cult brand, however, is not to be confused with a fad (read: whipped cream vodka), which enjoys a much shorter lifespan as it peaks and fizzles into non-existence. They say you can’t create a cult brand, that the phenomenon “just happens”, but that’s precisely what William Grant & Sons has achieved with Monkey Shoulder.

“Our marketing strategy was established long ago and is reliant on building the brand slowly, seeing it through the on-trade,” says Matt Hawes, global marketing manager for Monkey Shoulder, which pays very little heed to traditional advertising streams. “We have a very capable brand ambassador community that’s forged some great relationships, and the brand is starting to gain traction because of that.”

‘Demystification’ ambition

It’s been 10 years since Monkey Shoulder launched under William Grant as one of the very few Scotch blended malt whiskies on the market. Category-busting and quirky, it launched with the bold intention to “demystify malt whisky”; an ethos that may very well have been welcomed a decade ago, but is perhaps less significant today as whisky awareness among consumers thrives.

Nevertheless, William Grant’s dedication to its subdued yet firm marketing strategy in the on-trade has paid dividends almost a decade on – last year it celebrated breaking through the 200,000 case barrier for the first time, which is no easy feat for a malt whisky, let alone one that doesn’t advertise or target consumers as a priority.

Despite the achievement, Hawes is surprisingly nonchalant. “Volume case sales are important and they do signal progress I guess, but because we are looking to build the brand over the long term it’s not a key measure,” he explains. “What is key is word of mouth and positive sentiment displayed through the on-trade and by the bartending community.”

Now in 20 official markets globally – not to mention the many other unofficial ones where bartender-smuggled bottles take pride of place on back bars – the brand is stretching its appeal, although Hawes insists its focus will always remain firmly on the on-trade. “Our investment in the bartending community and making sure we build lasting relationships is serving us well, therefore an on-trade focus will always be a high priority for the brand.”

iSpoon
The iSpoon is a telescopic barspoon created by Monkey Shoulder’s global brand ambassador Dean Callan

Defies category declines

Promoted as both a cocktail base and a neat spirit, Monkey Shoulder’s appeal among bartenders has hit new heights, with “double-digit” growth recorded across every market, both new and established. The brand even suffered a supply shortage for much of last year as demand from the US, which has only had distribution since 2012, rocketed far higher than William Grant anticipated. It’s a result that’s bucking the trend of Scotch whisky decline in the States, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which puts overall volume down 12% in the first half of 2014.

“It’s a great liquid; that helps,” remarks Hawes confidently, adding: “We aren’t trying to push it too hard, we never really have done. When we do see pull, like we are seeing in the US, it’s organic to a certain extent. The factors are different by market, but we are seeing a growth in Scotch generally with younger people moving into the category and cocktail culture taking off in a number of markets. Those two factors combined make it a very interesting time for Monkey Shoulder.”

Rather than take any credit as global marketing manager for the brand’s recent success, Hawes gives full recognition to Monkey Shoulder’s team of brand ambassadors, who he calls “fantastically creative”. Led by global brand ambassador Dean Callan, the Monkey Shoulder army has brand soldiers stationed in its top five markets: France, the US, UK, Australia and South East Asia.

Bartender dependency

“If Monkey Shoulder is to be successful we will need the goodwill and recommendation of the bartending community and one of the best ways of achieving that is by our brand ambassadors engaging them,” Hawes explains. “There’s a degree of creative license for our brand ambassadors because they do know what will engage bartenders best, so any ideas they do have we take them seriously.”

Initiatives that captured the imagination of the on-trade globally in the past year have been the invention of the iSpoon, a telescopic barspoon created by Dean Callan, which in itself has generated something of a cult following. Also launched in the UK last year under regional ambassador Grant Neave was the Ultimate Bartender Challenge, a unique spin on the classic cocktail competition that rewarded bartender teams for demonstrating business prowess with an opportunity to run their own pop-up bar during London Cocktail Week. The event was recently shipped across to Australia, where a team led by Lee Potter-Cavanagh won the chance to run a Wayne’s World-themed bar, called Whisky Jerx, in Sydney for five weeks.

Hawes reveals the competition will now be rolled out to even further markets. “The competition tests bartenders on real bartending challenges, not necessarily just the glorification of the perfect cocktail,” he says. “It’s about what the bartender goes through on a day-to-day basis. Ultimately the ambition is to invest in the bartending community and provide those winners with a real prize, a genuine opportunity to learn about running a bar.”

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Monkey Shoulder gives its team of brand ambassadors freedom to orchestrate the brand’s marketing

Integral role of ambassadors

It’s a novel approach to brand management, giving the ambassadors the freedom to orchestrate the brand’s marketing, but it’s one Hawes insists works. In fact, the integral role of the ambassadors aids Monkey Shoulder in its effort to be seen as an accessible Scotch malt whisky in a category Hawes believes is rife with “too much seriousness”. He says: “Monkey Shoulder has always presented itself in a light-hearted fashion; we want to cut through some of the stuff associated with the traditions of Scotch whisky. There is room for a bit more fun and light-heartedness in what can be quite a serious category. A lot of the ideas our ambassadors come up with are suitably humourous.”

It’s an approach at the heart of many William Grant brands, from Hendricks gin to Sailor Jerry spiced rum, but despite the whimsical attitude of Monkey Shoulder, Hawes insists the long-term significance of the brand is central to the company’s business, even if it falls substantially short of enjoying the volumes of Scotch stablemates Glenfiddich or Grants. “Monkey Shoulder is enjoying a degree of success but we need to keep doing things in the right way – not trying to push it too hard, not setting ourselves ambitions that force wrong behaviour,” he explains.

The big question is when many Scotch whisky producers are crying out over limited stock availability for their single malt brands, is Monkey Shoulder important enough to William Grant for the group to keep siphoning off liquid from its higher profile malts? “We have enough stock to supply demand for 2015 and beyond,” Hawes maintains. “William Grant doesn’t invest in brands it doesn’t have faith in and a lot of people here are very excited about Monkey Shoulder. We also take a long term approach to stock planning, so whatever the brand is forecast to sell we are confident we will be able to supply it for the long term.”

Secret blend

Many have made vain attempts to guess the malts that go into a bottle of Monkey, but William Grant remains schtum on the liquid’s origins. The perplexity can’t help when it comes to educating consumers on the ins and outs of a blended malt versus a single malt, but Hawes claims that’s not a priority, despite widening interest and growing understanding of the category. “Some do and some don’t know about blended malt and the precise definition we’re not so concerned about,” he says. “We are trying to invite a new generation of whisky drinkers into the category and by not getting too hung up on some of the terminology associated with the category we can facilitate that process a little bit better. We don’t want to intimidate upfront by explaining in huge amounts of detail what Monkey Shoulder is versus a single malt.”

Still, Monkey Shoulder is staying true to this notion of “demystifying Scotch”, by drawing new consumers into the category with its quirky, accessible personality – perhaps essentially doing for Scotch whisky what Hendricks did for gin. “For some consumers Scotch can be quite intimidating; less so increasingly, but in a lot of markets there are rules associated with the category and how you should drink it. Monkey Shoulder is trying to present an alternative vision for Scotch in the future, one that is more accessible for people.”

It’s an approach that could well prove successful in emerging whisky markets in South Africa and South America – regions on the horizon for Hawes and William Grant. Although one thing’s for certain – Monkey Shoulder will always grow slowly and organically, laying down its roots in new markets to establish that “cult” following. It’s a strategy you could call the “softly, softly catchy monkey” approach.

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