DIAGEO North America’s SVP of Whiskies on Entering the World of Web3 Experiences

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

Like all brands within the spirits category, Johnnie Walker is accustomed to marketing around life’s celebratory cultural moments. But when it came to the emerging, disruptive culture of Web3 and collectible NFTs, the whisky maker lacked influence.

“This was an area of culture that we really weren’t playing in, and it was becoming one of the biggest disruptions we were going to see in digital experiences going forward,” said Sophie Kelly, SVP of Whiskies at DIAGEO North America. “So we started our adventure not by setting up wallets and everything corporately, but coming into the landscape and attaching ourselves to a community—and bringing value to that community.”

Following is our conversation with Kelly about Johnnie Walker’s entry into the realm of Web3 experiences and digital creator collaborations, how the brand is connecting with new communities and the business benefits of diving into the world of NFTs.

CM: You were just down in Miami at Art Basel with multiple activations, including in Web3. How did your journey into marketing with Web3 experiences begin?

Sophie Kelly, SVP of Whiskies at DIAGEO North America: I run all the whisky portfolios, so I have a lot of brands talking to different consumers, attaching to different cultural moments and turning up in different occasions. We took a step back about 10 months ago and said, our brands survive and thrive when they’re running alongside of culture and playing in it in a way that adds value. We generally turn up at moments of celebration, when people are enjoying themselves. But this was an area of culture that we really weren’t playing in, and it was becoming one of the biggest disruptions we were going to see in digital experiences going forward, whether it be NFTs or Web3 experiences.

So, we started our adventure by not setting up wallets and everything corporately, but coming into the landscape and attaching ourselves to a community—and bringing value to that community. Our first collaboration was with VeeFriends, Gary Vee’s collection, where we went into that Gift Goat community, which has 555 token-holders. They get a gift every six months, so we custom-made a Johnnie Walker bottle that became one of them. That was our entry into NFTs and Web3. And then we went to VeeCon and created an experience for those Gift Goat holders where they got their custom bottle.

CM: Were these new consumers that you were connecting with?

SK: We also started a relationship with BlockBar, which is a marketplace where you can create experiences around spirits that are beyond the bottle. It offers you a platform to auction these rare liquids and experiences and also collaborate with creators. What excited me about this platform for Johnnie Walker was the ability for us to tap into a whole new kind of luxury consumer. If you look at NFT collectors, they are high-net-worth consumers that we weren’t speaking to. And we’re a company that has more collectible and rare spirits in whisky than anyone else.

The second thing we did in the space was the launch of our Ghost & Rare edition, which is liquids that come from distilleries that are no longer operating. They’re orphan barrels that can never be got again. For this one, we had the actual NFT bottle. We had Emma Walker, our head distiller of Johnnie Walker, create an educational NFT. And then we partnered with Web3 creator Ivona Tau, who created AI artwork based off the concept of Ghost & Rare. We had this huge consumer experience where we released 75 of them.

CM: Did this benefit the brand beyond creating buzz?

SK: We usually go to market at about $220 a bottle on those. We released them auction-style and they ran out in 12 seconds and sold for a lot higher price point, up to about $700 or $725. Normally, when people get these rare bottles they sell them on the secondary market. Nobody benefits from that sale. Now, you can track that: The artist and you both benefit from the increased long life.

We also did a release of our rare 48-year on BlockBar, and that sold in seconds. We’re starting to get a sense for the experiences we can create, whether it be collaborating alongside a community like Gift Goat or actually getting into the private marketplace and creating our experiences for a luxury consumer that we weren’t talking to. Then, it’s about how we match the digital and the physical.

CM: And that’s where your activations at Art Basel come in.

SK: We know that Art Basel is going to have a huge presence with Web3. We know that some of the communities we’ve already started playing with, like World of Women, are going to be down there. We partnered up with Vandy The Pink and gave consumers the opportunity to customize their own Johnnie Walker Blue Bottle. He had various designs that he was playing with. And then at the actual event in Art Basel with Vandy you saw the voting in real life. It’s a unique experience with the product and design at the center of it, but ultimately crowdsourcing to create something that is unique to that community and that has both a physical and a digital experience.

CM: How do these Web3 initiatives help the brand from a business perspective? What do you gain from them?

SK: Culturally, we are aligning and learning about a new community that we don’t currently have thinking about or enacting with our brands, in particular the high-net worth of the NFT collectible community. We have a rare and collectible whisky collection that they don’t know about.

The second part of it is that we can create value beyond the bottle itself. Normally, we’re marketing so people buy the bottle. But in this environment, we can create artwork and educational experiences which people feel are valuable, and a new life cycle of emerging digital experiences that can go alongside our brands.

CM: You are responsible for Johnnie Walker’s whisky portfolio. Are other brands getting involved in Web3?

SK: There’s an experience that we just released on Crown Royal, which is another first. That brand is all about inspiring exceptional generosity. There is a purple bag associated with the product that it comes in, and we have a purpose-driven program where we stuff them with essentials and send them to the U.S. military. On Giving Tuesday, we went to market with a Web3 experience where you could gift a Crown Royal to someone in your life who you believed deserved rewarding because they had done exceptional things.

Then on their behalf, we packed a bag and sent it away to the military. We worked with Salesforce to develop the infrastructure so that people who were not in Web3 and didn’t have wallets and people who were already in Web3 could both come into the activation. There’s two parts of it: We used the Salesforce NFT cloud and then the CrossMint platform, which allowed us to bring in plus-21-year-old consumers who were not in Web3. We’re merging both those communities. It also started a CRM relationship with new consumers where we didn’t have one before. Now we have them in the system and can continue to have a dialogue with them.

CM: What are your brands doing in the space in the coming year?

SK: Across whiskies, we are going to continue to experiment and get feedback from consumers. We’re going to continue to have a long-term commitment to the communities we’ve already entered into. World of Women are key partners that we’ve established. We’re also going to work with more creators and bring them into our experiences and hopefully develop out this whisky luxury marketplace with BlockBar. The most exciting thing is the two-way feedback and the fact that you’re developing your programs alongside creators in this new emerging area. We’re also going to continue to extend “That Deserves a Crown” for the Super Bowl.


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