Inadvertent Gatekeeping: A Modern Challenge For Whiskey Brands

By Jordan Carroll and Rob Stevenson

Thursday 13th of June, 2023

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Gatekeeping?

Inadvertent gatekeeping is the biggest challenge whiskey brands face as they forge a path to faster growth. The fanatical community that orbits around whiskey is essential in driving loyalty, with these consumers collectively celebrating the craft, experience, history, and heritage of the drink. Inadvertently, this knowledge gap intimidates those new to the category, limiting new customer acquisition.

Existing research by William Grant & Sons points to the fact that drinkers believe single malts are “too complex with intimidating choice and language,” with higher price points making trials too risky for shoppers new to the category. For the most part, UGC and owned brand content on social media leans into this language heavily, satisfying its loyal cohort of whiskey lovers, whilst creating a sense of ‘insiderdom’. The knock-on effect is clear, as whiskey is the slowest growing category in both the US and UK spirits market when forecasting from 2024 to 2029 (Statista).

Overall, a more delicate balance is required in the marketing of whiskey brands, between sharing ‘whiskeylore’ – what we’re referring to as the body of knowledge passed between whiskey drinkers – and trying to bring new customers into market through other means.

‘Whiskeylore’ and Outsider Interests: It’s A Fine Balance

To understand the extent to which whiskey brands are aiming to reference wider consumer interests, simplify language, and connect with new communities to overcome this challenge, we used THE FIFTH’s proprietary AI creative insights platform, to zone in on the topics and language present in their Instagram content in 2024. In this research, we found that 84% of whiskey brands made no interest-based references outside of ‘whiskeylore’, with content revolving around lexically dense, technical language that is proven to be intimidating to those outside of the community.

When looking at terms such as ‘distillery’, ‘malt’, ‘cask’, ‘notes’, ‘oak’, ‘finish’, and ‘peaty’, we used TF-IDF scores which measure the frequency and importance of these terms across their Instagram captions. We found that these terms have 82% higher TF-IDF score in the captions of brands that do not reference outsider interests in their content. These brands also have 80% lower lexical diversity, meaning they use these terms often, prominently, and with little variety. Not only do these brands avoid referencing outside interests, they also fixate on these insider-based terms to an extremely high degree to satisfy their loyal cohort of insiders.

 Source: Johnnie Walker

When we used our AI to zone in on the whiskey brands who are using wider consumer interests in their marketing, we saw a much healthier balance of retention and attraction in their language. For every one direct reference to ‘whiskeylore’, there were 0.73 references to consumer interests across classic cars, British, US, and Colombian rap music; Formula 1, The Met Gala, Chinese New Year, local artists, prominent architects, International Women’s Day, Rave Culture, and Music Festivals, to name a few of many.

By creating a more well-rounded brand with touch-points across wider consumer interests, these brands have been able to capture a 29% share of engagement among owned whiskey Instagram channels, despite only comprising of 16% of brands in our sample. Notably, the audience composition of these brands is also much younger, with 22% more Gen Z consumers that follow these brands and 15% more Millennials. Clearly, brands can retain the attention of these consumers once their interests are piqued, future-proofing their brands with new generations. Naturally, there is still a higher degree of ‘whiskeylore’ in their content, which then educates new consumers and invites them into the community, breaking down the gates which kept them out.

To understand more deeply how whiskey brands are connecting with new communities creatively, we used our AI tool to analyse all Instagram Reels content from our sample in the past 12 months. In this research, we have identified three key rules which are repeatedly proven to have a strong positive correlation with heightened social media engagement. These rules are as follows:

Rule one: Language is not just words! Lean authentically into iconography.

All communities and consumer passions have codes, traditions, and language which require a level of knowledge to be understood. Those with insider knowledge find joy and validation in connecting with others in the community who share the same level of curiosity and passion, and the same can be said for brands that do this in an authentic way. Of course, visual language is just as important as verbal language in community lore, which is why we found through our AI that content including iconography related to wider consumer interests receives 3.54% engagement rate. This is a +1.62pp higher engagement rate than the content posted by the same sample of brands that did not include iconography, despite in some instances referencing these interests and passions by other means. The best example of this is Ballantine’s and how they have been able to authentically engage Hip-Hop fans by embracing and championing its most iconic emblem.

Through collaborating with producer and rapper of the iconic Hip-Hop group Wu-Tang Clan across a series of drop-culture style product collaborations, the iconography associated with RZA and Wu-Tang Clan were added to a Crosley LP player in drop 1, a Neighborhood streetwear collection in drop 2, a Flying Goose sriracha sauce in drop 3, and a limited edition Ballantine’s bottle in drop 4. As a means to bring through audiences that are new to whiskey and start them on their ‘whiskeylore’ education, RZA was also documented visiting Ballantine’s distillery, immersing himself in the craft of the product which is so important to the fanatics. This authentic partnership has delivered Ballantine’s its highest ever engaged content on Instagram at a 62.4x lift vs their account median, whilst content including or mentioning RZA on average has a 5.17x engagement lift on their all-time median performance.

 Source: Ballantine’s

Rule two: Authenticity is everything! Platform real people, to tell real stories, in real settings.

When trying to connect with consumers through their passions and interests, the only way to do this authentically is through people and place. By showcasing the locations that inspire those interests and working with the people at the heart of those passions, you ensure that audiences identify shared frames of reference, creating kinship and affinity. Through our AI platform, we found that content that signals to consumer interests through incorporating authentic people and places achieve 1.93% engagement rate, +0.65PP higher than posts from brands with no references to outsider interests at all.

A brand leading the charge in this space is Monkey Shoulder who use music in their social marketing to champion local communities. The brand is collaborating with Worldwide FM to support the trailblazing communities where people connect, create and discover music, by awarding £10,000 each to five communities around the world to help bring to life an original project. As DJ and broadcaster Giles Peterson narrates detailing the project, we see clips from people dancing at festivals, nightclubs, concert venues in the UK, Nigeria, India, Miami and Taiwan.

The global initiative has people and place touch-points in every second of the video, which is why it achieves 96.56% positive sentiment and a significant 1.93x engagement lift on their median performance. This red thread is seen throughout their social content in 2024, such as when they filmed Hip-Hop DJ JFB creating a Monkey Jam Sour on his turntable, using record scratches and vocal samples to tell users how to make the cocktail. Another example is when the brand attended Amsterdam Dance Event, interviewing DJ Prime Cuts whilst he performs atop a crane, and following up by posting mixes from the festival on the brand’s Mixcloud.

 Source: Monkey Shoulder

Rule three: Blend ‘Whiskeylore’ With Outside Interests

One of the easiest and most effective way to strike a balance between attraction and retention is to clash these strategies together, by blending ‘whiskeylore’ with references to interests outside of ‘whiskeylore’. This approach helps preserve the codes and norms of ‘whiskeylore’ whilst folding in high affinity interests and educating new consumers at the same time. Our AI tool found that brands that blend attraction and retention in this way achieve a 4.52% engagement rate, a significant +3.42PP higher than content from whiskey brands who just focus on ‘whiskeylore’ in silo.

The best example of this comes Talisker who platformed artist, adventurer, conservationist and content creator Katie Tunn to tell her story about Skye, the place she lives, as well as the place the whiskey is distilled. In the content, she talks about how Skye is the ultimate inspiration for her works, as the docustyle interview shows Katie immersing herself in the sea and skyscapes as part of her process, before creating a label inspired by Skye for a new limited edition label for Talisker Skye, one of their best loved whiskeys inspired by the same place. This content achieved a 1.73x engagement lift compared to the brand’s median performance and is their best performing post of 2024.