August 19, 2009 • Adam Nemett
I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch.
And though Johnnie Walker isn’t exactly my favorite brand of scotch, I’ve always admired its packaging, its branding, its advertising, its heritage. There’s a graceful simplicity to ordering a call brand by color. Johnnie Walker Red, Black, Green, Gold, and the elite Blue become a sort of mnemonic device for understanding the correlation to the whisky’s ascending age and quality. They’ve chosen to highlight their company heritage—the Victorian dandy with the top-hat walking across every bottle—and still use this longevity and tradition as a selling point for the character of their product. Again, in the world of scotch, age often correlates with quality.
And so it was no surprise, but no small thrill either, to learn of Johnnie Walker’s brand new six-minute advertisement, entitled “The Man Who Walked Around the World,” in which actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, etc.), in his typical flippant fashion, narrates the history of the brand via a “walking” tour through the Scottish countryside. (Note: the ad occasionally gets pulled from YouTube for whatever reason, but you can easily find it with some deft Google-fu; below is a recent working link)
Directed by Jamie Rafn, produced by BBH London, and already being touted by some as the “best ad of the year,” the short film gives legs (nyuk nyuk nyuk) to the “boring brand-history page from a Web site.” While some are calling it a masterpiece—and indeed, it is both a technical marvel (the acting and production values are excellent, the visual props and timing are pitch perfect, and the whole shebang takes place in one long take (the focus-puller probably deserves a special Oscar)) and a welcome change from the dry corporate histories we’re used to seeing, I believe the BBH spot misses a key ingredient or two for successful storytelling.
Not that it’s a reputable source, exactly, but here’s a bit of market research: in the myriad of YouTube comments that have sprung up since the video was posted about a week ago, there are many who love the mini-movie but plenty of others (like “janeejane”) posting valid critiques like:
“beautiful but why should I care about theÒ history of the brand – was bored after a minute or so- quick scrolled through to see if anything different happened.”
Indeed. Why should we care about the history of a brand? Perhaps in the viral video age, we’re only willing to spend six minutes watching a YouTube clip if it promises a hint of sex, violence, embarrassment, hilarity, special effects, or a three-year-old girl named Pearl screaming epithets to a weepy Will Farrell. But I think janeejane speaks to something slightly deeper—namely, the lack of a true narrative arc within the JW commercial.
In his walk, Carlyle begins with the founding roots of the brand and then chronicles Johnnie Walker’s rise from a “Victorian farm-born grocer” to the international powerhouse it is today. You’d think there were countless troubles and obstacles to overcome along the way . . . but the narrated history makes little mention of these, instead choosing to tell the story as a steady and meteoric upward rise from humble beginnings to wild success, with nary a stumbling block in between.
And this, I believe, is why janeejane doesn’t care about the history of the brand. Because there’s no conflict, no excitement, no challenges to overcome. Especially amid a mantra—“Keep Walking”—that alludes to the long, arduous task of ever moving forward regardless of any obstacles, the choice not to include the essential challenges in Johnnie Walker’s path is nothing short of a sorely missed opportunity in corporate storytelling.
Among all the carefully timed visual cues and silly props, why not give Robert Carlyle some wall to scale, some barrier to knock down? Heck, the whole conceit of “walking” would have lent itself nicely to the idea of climbing up a peaked hill, down a shadowed valley, or through terrain as rocky as the Scottish countryside. It probably would have been more interesting to watch as well.
Sure, there’s value in showing the unerring consistency of a brand, as displayed through the actor’s unbroken strides. But for my money, the surreal JW commercial starring Harvey Keitel (below), the famed “Android” campaign, or even the marginally more exciting animated video on Johnnie Walker’s corporate history page, is a more telling tribute to the brand’s place in our hearts, precisely because it highlights points of conflict and challenges overcome.
When we work with clients to help them tell their own central stories, we ask them to be brave and willing to address their challenges and danger moments, as well as their resounding successes. In good movies, good commercials, and good stories, it’s these moments of conflict that resonate with an audience and compel us to stick around to see how the story ends. In every good “walk” through a corporate history, we strive to show the company’s perseverance amid the whole trail—peaks and valleys alike—which only serves to heighten the unmistakable correlation between a company’s age and its quality.