Close-Up: Live issue - Johnnie Walker: the story behind 'Keep walking'

Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Steve Mustarde looks at the campaign that won the Grand Prix at the 2008 IPA Effectiveness Awards.

To readers in the UK, Johnnie Walker is probably not that familiar. In global terms, however, it is one of the most famous and valuable brands in any category. Sold in more than 180 markets, it is the world's largest whisky brand by some margin, with more than $4.5 billion in sales in 2007. The brand's portfolio ranges from Blue Label, one of the world's most expensive whiskies, to Red Label, the world's most popular.

Back in 1999, however, Johnnie Walker was on red alert. In the preceding three years, volume sales had fallen by 14 per cent, while market share was also in steady decline. For a brand with such a proud past, the future was looking bleak; Bartle Bogle Hegarty was called to pitch for the business. The brief was twofold: to immediately reverse sales fortunes; and to develop a future-proof global communications strategy that would bring sustained growth in all the brand's markets and much-needed focus internally.

Big but not meaningful

The problem was clear. In a category where brand preference is key, the Johnnie Walker brand lacked meaning. Years of variant-led communications had reduced the brand's image to typical category associations. In short, it lacked a distinctive voice. This was exacerbated by fragmented communications, with local markets producing numerous unrelated campaigns worldwide. Johnnie Walker had become a disparate collection of products - it needed to become a single, powerful brand again. Additionally, the growth targets were so ambitious, we at BBH knew we would have to forge a significantly stronger connection with consumers than the brand had ever achieved before. Johnnie Walker had to be not just a whisky brand, but a global icon.

We studied the leading icon brands of the time and found that they meant more to their consumers than just purveyors of products or services. They tapped into universally appealing human values. By doing so, they built such a profound connection with consumers that they enjoyed considerable success across a wide range of markets. If we were to effect a step change in Johnnie Walker's fortunes, we needed to inspire whisky drinkers in the same way.

From achievement to progress

Whisky advertising has always been about masculine success. Yet, the category's portrayal of success at the time felt obvious, idealistic and removed. We sought an interpretation of success that could truly captivate men worldwide.

To understand the nature of masculinity at the dawn of the 21st century, we commissioned some global research that revealed an emerging trend: to men all around the world, success was no longer about material wealth or ostentatious displays of status. It was now an internal quality, about becoming a better man, having an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement. A man was judged a success not by where he was, but where he was going. The most powerful expression of masculine success in the 21st century was progress.

This spirit of progress had always been at the heart of the Johnnie Walker brand. It was pioneering zeal that drove the founder, John Walker, to start blending whiskies in his Kilmarnock grocery shop in 1820. The same dynamism led his sons to grow the company into the world's first global brand. The brand's logo, the Striding Man, was drawn to capture that same restlessness. This was not just going to be a lick of paint for the brand; with our message of progress we would rekindle the flame at its heart.

The Striding Man had fallen out of the limelight but we wanted to make him a standard for the revitalised brand to march behind. This meant a change in prominence and direction: he would be at the heart of all communications and we would turn him around so he strode forwards, into the future. While the Striding Man originally expressed the brand's thirst for progress, we now wanted it to exhort consumers to progress too. From this, the rallying cry was born: "Keep walking."

Launching with focus, exploiting with flexibility

"Keep walking" has run in more than 120 countries over eight years, including more than 50 TV executions, 150 print executions, radio ads, websites, sponsorships, internal awards, consumer awards and even a charitable fund.

To maximise the idea's traction in the early years, we had to establish its message and iconography clearly. The campaign was managed with strict focus and control; the same creative ran everywhere.

Once the campaign had gained traction, we flexed it to accommodate specific local or business needs while, on a global level, moving beyond the launch creative work towards more surprising and arresting expressions of progress.

Return on investment

From the launch of "Keep walking", Johnnie Walker's sales quickly returned to strong growth and today that rise continues unabated. Volume sales grew from 10.2 million cases in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2007, resulting in a massive 94 per cent revenue growth to reach $4.56 billion worldwide. The campaign has galvanised all Johnnie Walker employees behind a single rallying cry and increased Diageo's profile considerably.

A true cultural icon

But how did we know we had made Johnnie Walker into a true cultural icon? Douglas Holt writes in How Brands Become Icons: "Joining the pantheon of cultural icons, (iconic brands) become consensus expressions of particular values held dear by members of society."

As a result of "Keep walking", the brand has indeed become an expression of progress, used by many to signal their identification with those values. After the 2005 assassination of their Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the people of Lebanon took to the streets. To proclaim their resolve to the world, they carried homemade banners emblazoned with the words "Keep walking" and carrying a local pun on the name Red Label.

At a March 2008 party conference in Greece, George Papandreou, the opposition leader, proclaimed to party members "We need to continue our pursuit until we achieve our goal", then exhorted, in English: "Keep walking."

Over the course of the campaign, "Keep walking" executions have elicited remarkable reactions. It's not uncommon in creative development research for young men to hold profound conversations about what it means to be a man. We even found instances of people in Brazil tattooing the Striding Man on their bodies.

"We have to take advantage of everything we have, to enjoy everything and to give our maximum so we have no regrets when we die. We have to think we are on this earth to do something; (Keep walking) motivates me to be a better human being," a focus group member in creative development research in Venezuela in 2006 said.

The case of "Keep walking" is clear evidence that ambitious communications ideas, that truly inspire and embolden their audiences, can revitalise sales, unify organisations and enable brands to play a far more meaningful role in consumers' lives than more conventional competitors.

- Steve Mustarde is an account planner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.