APG Creative Strategy Awards - Johnnie Walker 'keep walking' by BBH Asia

LONDON - How the global Johnnie Walker campaign "keep walking" was adapted for the Chinese market.

Johnnie Walker 'keep walking' by BBH Asia
Johnnie Walker 'keep walking' by BBH Asia


This paper details how the global Johnnie Walker campaign – 'keep walking' – was adapted for the Chinese market. 

China presented great challenges to us as the culture there was very different from the Western markets where the campaign originated. 

To fully understand the issues we constructed a four-level model of cultural difference and analysed the material, cultural, behavioural and ephemeral levels of Chinese culture as pertaining to both the Whisky category and the concept of Personal Progress which the Keep Walking campaign is based on. 

This allowed us to reimagine the endline as a toast, a pact between men to help each other’s future progress.  This idea made Keep Walking relevant to the Chinese drinking occasion and the Chinese concept of progress. 

To fully exploit this idea we used a  media strategy of a story told in five episodes spread across both TV and web media, creating media value by driving large numbers of people to our website.

The campaign drove 7 million unique visitors to the Johnnie Walker website and producing strong tracking results across China (and also Taiwan) beating previous norms and demonstrating that we had unlocked the power of Keep Walking in the Chinese context.


Johnnie Walker’s ‘Keep Walking’ campaign is now ten years old, and has been used in more than 120 markets.

China is the world’s most populous nation, and a nation with a real appetite for whisky.  It’s a crucial market for Johnnie Walker to succeed in. 

It’s also a very difficult market to understand and a place where communicating the brand’s territory of personal progress is far from easy. 

This paper is about how we adapted the campaign to the Chinese context, while staying true to the brand’s core values. 

It’s about how the team used a variety of tools to gain a really deep understanding of how Keep Walking should be expressed in China. 

Finally it’s about how that work paid off by allowing us to begin to catch up on our key competitor, Chivas Regal, despite their higher adspend and 2-year headstart in the market.

The Objective

Long term, our goal was to beat Chivas.  They were the number one brand in the Chinese whisky market and led Johnnie Walker in all key brand metrics, including the our key tracking score – ‘a brand that encourages me to move forward in life’. 

We had been making steady progress over the 3 years the brand had been using ‘Keep Walking’ in China but had not been able to close the gap with them, due to their heavier media spend and longer time in-market.

Our objective for this campaign was to fully realise the power of the ‘Keep Walking’ idea in China and by so doing, narrow the tracking and sales gap with Chivas.

The problem

‘Keep Walking’ was a line and an idea that Chinese men aged 25-35 (the core whisky target audience) liked. 

But it wasn’t one they could relate to whisky and drinking. 

In addition, Johnnie Walker’s  brand came across as a little cold and distant – it was seen as ‘too serious’ or ‘a man struggling alone’.

By contrast, ‘The Chivas Life’ with its images of the idle rich at play was an effective and well-known piece of lifestyle advertising that spoke to Chinese men’s desire for material success and living the good life.

We needed to make our campaign relevant to the audience and the product but without losing the things that made ‘Keep Walking’ great – its intelligence, sophistication and differentiation within the category.

How do you summarise a country of 1.3 billion people in a brief?

We needed to analyse all the factors that might make consumers in China react differently to our communications and separate the significant from the insignificant.  To do this, we constructed the following model:

This model allowed us to look at a variety of factors that might affect how the brand and it’s communications were perceived. 

It also separated ephemeral factors, which could be changed by advertising, from behavioural, cultural and material factors which could not.

Ephemeral factors

We had created Johnnie Walker ads specifically for China before, using Chinese casting and Chinese cultural themes such as the space program, Chinese New Year and the Shanghai Skyline.  

While these had been moderately successful in-market, they had still fallen short of the standard set by Keep Walking in other markets.  This made us fairly sure that the issues with our campaign were not ephemeral ones.

Behavioural factors

The person reading this is probably a Westerner.  In which case your vision of Scotch drinking probably involve leather sofas, wood-panelled walls and gazing out of a window at rugged landscapes while thinking deep thoughts.

In China, drinking Scotch means you are out at a noisy bar on a Friday night with six of your best friends. 

There’s a bottle of whisky on the table and you’re going to finish it (and possibly order seconds).

Someone is loudly (and badly) singing karaoke in the background and provocative hostesses and bar girls are scattered throughout the almost exclusively male clientele. 

Everyone is smoking, draining their glasses with shouts of ‘gan pei!’ and bullshitting enthusiastically.  Contemplative it is not.

This issue had been raised by qualitative research – what did ‘Keep Walking’ have to do with this context? 

How could we dramatise the brand idea in a way that was relevant to drinking? 

Cultural factors

Every marketer in Asia knows the truism that most Asian cultures are ‘collective’ versus the ‘individualistic’ West. 

The definitive research on the topic was by Hofstede in the early 70s – his analysis of IBM employees worldwide identified this as a persistent cultural difference between the West and East, and one that remained constant over time, despite modernisation and globalisation.

In practical terms a ‘collective’ culture values the opinion of others more, and privileges social activities and social pleasures over individual ones. 

The iconography of Johnnie Walker was the solo ‘striding man’ which compares unfavourably with Chivas’ groups of men enjoying a drink together in the collective context. 

Even more significantly our brand territory was ‘personal progress’ – we knew we had to give this collective meaning.

Material factors

Despite rapid growth, China is still a poor country.  Rich people still have poor relatives, and know how close they are to being poor themselves.  Nobody wants to be a peasant.  Therefore demonstrating wealth is very important to Chinese people.

This is reflected in the semiotics of Chinese advertising which is heavy on images of gold, business suits, expensive cars and other obvious markers of financial clout.  Chivas comes in rococo metallic packaging and had ads showing men on yachts. 

In contrast Johnnie Walker comes in an understated black box.

Qualitative research on advertising in the category also highlighted the importance of status display.

We could not ignore the status issue – whisky is drunk in public so buying Johnnie Walker had to show that you were ‘a man of wealth and taste’. 

But we didn’t believe that we would be staying true to the brand’s identity if we simply equated ‘progress’ with ‘money’.

The Johnnie Walker drinker had to feel that his form of status was in some way superior and more sophisticated than that of the Chivas drinker. 

In other words we couldn’t reject wealth but instead had to present progress beyond wealth in our advertising.  By doing so we could deal with the main material difference between China and the West.

A country of 1.3 billion people summarised in a brief

Taking all these factors together our brief became to communicate the territory of progress via the Keep Walking campaign with three conditions:

  • Make ‘Keep Walking’ relevant to a boisterous drinking occasion
  • Show collective progress, not individual progress
  • Show progress beyond wealth

How do you ‘keep walking’ in a karaoke bar?

One step had already been made towards addressing the behavioural issue. 

A previous campaign had introduced the idea of using a toast as a branding device – raising a glass and saying ‘Here’s to…’ 

This allowed us to link progress to drinking – the role of the product was to congratulate someone on their progress.

Our first step was to modify the toast to be more branded and to more explicitly link the ‘Keep Walking’ line to drinking. 

We decided in this next campaign the characters would clink glasses and say ‘Keep Walking’ in English as a toast (instead of the traditional ‘gan pei’). 

This solved the problem of making the brand idea relevant to drinking.

Collective progress – the great leap forward

Now we needed to address the cultural issue.  We found our solution not in a research debrief, but in a careful analysis of Chinese pop culture.

By looking at what films were popular among young men we discovered a common theme of ‘xiong di’ or brotherhood.  An archetypal example is 1996’s ‘???’ (‘Young and dangerous’) which shows how a group of childhood friends grow up to become triad gangsters together. 

Their loyalty to one another, and unbreakable bonds of brotherhood draw them into conflict with another gangster but they pull and defeat him because brotherhood is more important than wealth, love or even survival. 

There are many such films and even hit songs about brotherhood such as Emil Chau’s ‘??’ (‘Friend’) with lyrics such as: Friends walk this life together, Those days will not return, One word, one life,  A lifetime relationship, a cup of wine.

If we re-imagined the toast as a promise to one’s friends – a pact to help them progress in life we would have something collective, relevant and culturally resonant.

Money, money, money

The final problem was the material issue – how to do progressive status?  Our solution was to literally show that the characters in our ads were already rich, but wanted something more. 

To cue status and wealth, we made our characters successful architects. 

Then, to provide dramatic tension, we had three of the partners fire the fourth one. 

Not because of incompetence, but because they knew his real dream was to be a film director and they had to honour their promise to help him progress in life. 

The creative idea

‘Keep Walking’ used as a toast signifies a pact between men to help each other progress through life.

This idea would be expressed as a story about a group of successful architects who help their friend realise his dream of becoming a film director.

Media Strategy

We were sure that a story a like this needed a widescreen cinematic treatment and the space to breathe if it was to be told stylishly and engagingly.  We were also painfully aware that China is a very expensive TV market with cost-per-thousand often above US$100. 

Although China has the world’s largest number of web users and a passionate love for the online medium, we also knew we couldn’t just do an online campaign as TV is essential in China to give a brand stature and make it look credible.

Our solution was to tell the story in five episodes.  Episodes 1, 3 and 5 were 30 and 60 TV ads.  But each ended on a cliffhanger and a drive to a website which housed episodes 2 and 4, both of which were around two minutes long. 

In this way we could tell an extended, cinematic story and really get the audience to engage with the characters.  We could also deliver media efficiency – for every visitor driven to our site we got the equivalent of 4-8 free 30 OTSes.

We organised the whole campaign around driving visits to our website at scale, using TV, online video formats, PR  and outdoor.

In other words we treated web as a grown-up mass medium.  We invested against digital, but used non-interactive video content driven by good old-media values like storytelling and production quality to deliver a branded message to our audience.


Our cliffhanger media strategy delivered 7 million unique users  to the site in China over the course of the campaign, equivalent to around 15-20% of our target audience.  In Taiwan this delivered a 19% awareness of our web-only film.

In terms of tracking, the entire campaign beat both category and Diageo norms for awareness and shifted progress measures significantly across China and Taiwan and closed the gap with Chivas, particularly on the key measure ‘a brand that encourages me to move forward in life’.

Finally sales across China were up for the advertised period, ahead of category and ahead of Chivas. 

In this way we can be confident that the campaign successfully delivered against our objective of activating the power of ‘Keep Walking’ in China.


By analysing the differences between China and the West using our model of cultural differences, we got could grasp all the issues with the global campaign. 

This allowed us to get to a very clear definition of what we needed to address in localizing the idea. 

By searching for insights in pop culture and anthropological literature as well as conventional research we were also able to arrive at a solution which kept true to the spirit of the global campaign, while making it relevant and resonant in the Chinese context. 

Author: Jacob Wright, BBH Asia