Advertising

The Man Who Kept Johnnie Walker Walking

Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes, who died on June 7, turned a lagging whisky brand into an international front-runner.

Nancy Friedman
5 min readJun 19, 2023

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A Johnnie Walker “Keep Walking” ad in Beirut, 2006. Keep reading for the full story. Image: Campaign Brief

In 1999, Johnnie Walker was a 180-year-old Scotch whisky brand with a distinguished past and a depressing present. It had an image problem: Compared with newer brands, Johnnie Walker was perceived as fusty and outdated. It had a consistency problem: The brand was running 27 ad campaigns around the world, each with a different message. And it had a financial problem: Sales had declined 14 percent in three years. What’s more, the future looked grim: In the U.S. and elsewhere, drinkers were preferring wine and vodka to whisky.

Then a farsighted marketing executive changed branding history.

Ivan Menezes had been working at Johnnie Walker’s parent company, the international spirits corporation Diageo, for a few years before becoming global marketing director for the company’s beverage division. In an interview with the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman, he succinctly summarized the Johnnie Walker crisis: “We are losing older drinkers by the the bucketful, but only gaining new ones by the thimbleful.”

He could have let the brand die a slow, ignominious death or a quick and efficient one. Instead, Menezes brought in the troops. He spent £100 million (the equivalent of about $224 million in today’s dollars) to revamp Johnnie Walker’s image, working with the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty to develop the brand’s first international ad campaign. The ads retained the company’s familiar “Striding Man” logo but pivoted it to face right instead of left, symbolically suggesting forward movement. And everywhere they appeared, the ads deployed a single slogan — “Keep Walking”— that reinforced the brand name and conveyed “progress and positivity.”

The impact on the bottom line was dramatic. Between 1999 and 2007, volume sales increased from 10.2 million cases to 15.1 million, and revenue rose 94 percent to $4.56 billion. By 2022, Johnnie Walker was the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky brand, with sales of more than $8 billion.

Even more remarkable has been the ad campaign’s staying power. Twenty-four years after the launch…

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.