This week The Whisky Foundation released its report on sexism within the whisky industry. Titled ‘Do you even like whisky?’ the study found that a whopping 89% of women that work in the industry think consumers still perceive it as a ‘man’s drink’. So who’s fault is this? Are brands, consciously or not, still upholding these stereotypes and divisions, through their design, marketing, and even liquids?
The Whisky Foundation said it itself this week, when it published the results of its survey of over 600 women in the whisky industry; it makes for sobering reading. The foundation, set up in 2018 to champion women in the industry through mentorship programmes, as well as to promote whisky as a more inclusive drink among consumers, raises a few disturbing points.
Collated from respondees across 30 countries – working in the industry across events, operations, retail and administrative roles – it found that 67% feel that whisky’s masculine reputation makes their jobs more challenging.
Astonishingly – or not – 81% said that have been asked ‘do you actually like whisky?’. That’s women who make, sell and promote it, asked if they actually like it. Furthermore, 89% in consumer-facing roles have been spoken over or had their knowledge questioned. 83% have experienced customers preferring to speak to a male colleague. And depressingly, just 16% think the industry is doing enough to change whisky’s masculine image.
And to reiterate, this is coming from women who work in the whisky industry itself. If these results are to judged as indicative of an over-arching issue that consumers engaging with the category face too, then what hope does it have of recruiting more female drinkers?
How did whisky become ‘masculine’?
Let’s dig into that a little deeper. Where does this masculine image come from? Our Whisky Foundation founder Becky Paskin previously raised concerns about sexism in the industry, when it comes something as seemingly inconspicuous as the language used to describe the liquid itself.
The then widely revered Jim Murray's Whisky Bible was the main, but not only, focus of criticism. Passages such as one that described Welsh distillery Penderyn (which is made by an all-female team), as celebrating “maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome” were called out.
Yet up until that point in 2020 – yes 2020 – brands had clamoured to be included in its pages, gleefully sharing their inclusion and write-ups each year. After all it was the bestselling whisky book in the world. The 2020 edition included 34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and “many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women” said Paskin. They included Penderyn Celt’s write-up: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time... and energy...”. Beautiful.
It took having something so glaring to be publicly pointed out for brands to take a reactive stance and say that they believed whisky should be for everyone. Yet years of such messaging has already worked to keep women away from the category, reinforcing messaging that if you’re female, whisky quite simply isn’t for you.
Dark, broody, masculine pack designs, brand backfires such as ‘Jane Walker’, a plethora of sexist historical marketing campaigns, alongside little progress in moving the image of the category forward have done little to dispel what seems inherent; that brands have long portrayed whisky as a man’s drink, both overtly and simply by failing to update their branding and messaging.
In the cold light of 2023, it’s astonishing to see how many brands have yet to confront this legacy. As a branding design agency, the incredible lack of progress when it comes to the visual language whisky brands are using is stark.
Despite massive budgets being ploughed into innovation, into cask experimentation, into aging processes, into experimenting with the effects of dual aging across numerous climates, into educating consumers on what whisky tastes like and why it's something they should be exciting by…we could go on, the vast majority of brands are still adhering to a design scheme that has more akin to the aesthetics of an order of service from a funeral parlour, than something modern, inclusive, and welcoming.
Tradition is something worth talking about and preserving. But black, cream and gold embossed labels, drowning with text in that ubiquitous heavy font, unfortunately signal not only tradition, but as per the legacy of whisky described above, exclusion. And frankly, they do little justice to what’s inside the bottle.
The tentative signs of progress
It’s worth noting that though not specific to Scotch – new world brands don’t have the baggage that ‘tradition’ can sometimes bring – it is a major culprit of this closed-off style of branding. But there is progress being made. Johnnie Walker’s spring launch of its Bold Steps bottle took the brand into a whole new space design, signalling steps towards becoming more inclusive ethnically too. Not only has whisky been very male for a very long time, it’s also been very white.
Keeping the bottle shape and its core label – which it clearly sees as vital for brand recognition – it celebrated British South Asian creativity with its limited-edition pack. As part of its collaboration with creative community platform Diet Paratha, illustrator Kushiaania was chosen following an open competition. Her work features vibrant sketches of flowers, the sun, the moon, and female-forms, intended to express feminine strength.
The launch formed part of the Bold Steps project, part of the brand’s Keep Walking campaign, which aims to offer new opportunities to the next generation of creatives. Anita Chhiba, founder of Diet Paratha, said of the project: “The British creative industry can be an isolating place for marginalised communities… That is why campaigns like Bold Steps are so important to platform the under-represented, because this isn’t unique – we feel it across the whole creative industry.”
Updating established brands
Other recent ‘updates’ to long established brands have included two from Pernod Ricard’s stable; a collaboration with UK rapper and singer Stefflon Don saw the Chivas bottle brought to us in vivid technicolour in vibrant pinks and blues, but again, retaining most of its core branding. Ballantine’s 21 Year Old was recently reimagined by Korean artist Noh Sangho, with a pack that depicts people enjoying their leisure time. Again, it keeps the core branding at its heart.
One brand to start afresh, and be genuinely disruptive, is Glenmorangie. Its bold rebrand, and accompanying advertising campaign launched in late 2022, tore up the design cues the brand, and category, had established for itself, and started again.
Resembling few others in the industry – save for say, Bruichladdich – its rebrand focused entirely on a splash of bold colour, chosen from those not usually associated with Scotch, and a bold reworking of its brand name. The palate was chosen to better reflect each whisky. For the Original, orange was used to reflect its orange, honey and peach notes. For the Lasanta, red is intended to reflect its spiciness. And for the Quinta Ruban, deep green is supposed to hint at ‘forest floor’ notes of mint and honeysuckle. This colour coding provides a short cut for consumers to access the brand through what should matter most; flavour.
This was accompanied by an ad campaign that features images of young men and women – praise be – doing young, modern things, like going to an arcade, or you know, going on a holiday. Notably, none of the images show faces, meaning consumers can see themselves in these ‘relatable’ but aspirational figures. It’s clear that Glenmorangie is working to remove barriers to accessing its brand, presenting it as aspirational, yes, but above all fun and light-hearted.
So why is the rest of the industry lagging so far behind? Newer brands, again without the baggage of their own traditions, are forging their own path design-wise. Notable is Nc’Nean. Female-founded, and built on sustainability, it doesn’t want to look like other Scotch brands, because it isn’t like other Scotch brands. Its foliage-focused pack, again in hues of green and blue still reads as whisky, but in a much more gender-neutral, accessible way.
So, when will the rest of the industry catch up? For brands that don’t feel like they’re contributed to the lack of diversity and sexism in the industry, there’s a key lesson to be learned. Whisky has a masculine image, it simply does. And brands with traditional visual cues are automatically associated with that.
Brands may not have proactively gatekept the category, but many haven’t welcomed or encouraged diversity either. The onus now is on brands to do something about it. As this new survey shows, we’re entering a time where brands need to distance themselves from this inward looking past, and signal their inclusiveness. And that starts with their bottles.
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