Johnnie Walker: execution counts as much as strategy

On a recent trip to Beirut I was struck by a huge billboard for Johnnie Walker featuring Bernard Khoury, a local architect who had helped re-build the city, bombed to pieces by 15 years of civil war. Khoury was a guy who dramatised the brand's philosophy of "Keep Walking". An earlier billboard had an even more direct illustration of how the people of this amazing city were determined to progress despite the horror and hardship of war.

The poster was a reminder of how Keep Walking has become a truly global campaign, but one that has been embraced and personalised by local markets. Some of the secrets to this success then popped into my in-box yesterday in the form of a cracking case study from Marc at Effective Brands. The case showed how a 9.5% sales decline from 1995 to 1999 was turned into growth of 3.7% and recall was doubled.

My take-out from the case is that this success is less to do with the smart strategy the case focuses on, and more to do with excellence of execution. Let's look at why.

Screen shot 2011-05-12 at 08.41.40

Keep Walking is based on an insight that success today is not only about material rewards, its also about "the journey". This led to a brand idea of "Inspiring personal progress". So far, so smart. However, Johnnie Walker was not alone in coming up with this idea. Countless other brands got to the same place at the same time. What really sets Johnnie Walker apart is the excellence of execution.

1. Brand baked in

The tagline "Keep Walking" is a simple but extremely powerful bit of creative work by ad agency BBH. It brings to life the brand idea with a call to action. But the real genius is how the brand is "baked in" by using the idea of walking, linked to the brand name and symbol.

2. Visual impact

A great job has been done in simplifying and amplifying the walking man symbol, creating great visual impact. Only white, gold and black are used, creating aspirational appeal as well as stand out. This led to the "stopping power" of the billboards being measured at 80% by Milward Brown, vs. a benchmark of 60%.

And a little tweak I had not noticed was to have the walking man walk from left to right, not right to left, to better illustrate progress. Clever eh?

Screen shot 2011-05-12 at 09.07.48

3. Single idea, multiple executions

Rob Malcolm and his global marketing team at Diageo were able to go from 27 different advertising campaigns for Johnnie Walker down to one, a feat that many global brand folk can only dream about. Part of this success is down to their focus on the big idea and "brand assets" (symbols, tagline, colour pallette), rather than a straight-jacket executional format and structure.This approach actively encourages local teams, like the one in Lebanon we saw earlier, to adopt and adapt the campaign. The way Rob describes this is that global brand management is about "Acting global. Thinking local".

4. Consistency to create memory structure

 The Keep Walking campaign has been running for 15 years, and has produced 30 TV commercials, over 150 print executions and many other marketing ideas. And this sort of incredible consistency has helped build "memory structure", hard-wiring brand symbols and meaning into our brains. You can click below to watch one of the TV ads featuring actor Harvey Keitel.

In conclusion, Johnnie Walker offers true inspiration for any global brand team. Yes, of course, creating a smart strategy which has global relevance is a tough and important job. But Keep Walking also shows how excellence in execution is just as important, if not more so, to ensure the idea is truly embraced and utilised on a global scale.