Laphroaig Single Malt Scotch Whisky is produced in Islay, an island off the coast of Scotland. Due to the distillery’s proximity to the water and peat from centuries-old bogs, the whisky has a unique taste.
In other words: It’s not for everyone.
And the brand, which was founded in 1815 and is owned by Beam Suntory, doesn’t try to fight that. In fact, it embraces the love and the hate through a five-year-old #OpinionsWelcome campaign created by White Label, drinks marketing specialists with offices in London and Chicago.
“Our job was never to convince everyone they will like it. A cursory glance at whisky blogs and sites shows that Laphroaig has been polarizing opinion for over 200 years. They have hundreds of thousands of fans around the world. Equally, many have put the glass down quickly and moved on,” says Greg Saunders, executive creative director and co-founder of White Label.
According to Saunders, #OpinionsWelcome isn’t so much brave but rather a chance to connect with a core truth in the brand. And that is: “It doesn’t need to be liked by everyone. Just loved by some,” Saunders says. “There is a saying at Laphroaig: ‘We don’t make friends easily, but those we do are for life.’ The campaign echoes that.”
The newest installment of the campaign is “A First for Friends,” a spot that finds long-time pals sitting down at a bar in pairs to try Laphroaig for the first time. While they have been compensated for their time, they arrive not knowing what they will be testing until the bottle is revealed, and their reactions are unscripted.
“I cannot ever imagine using actors for #OpinionsWelcome,” Saunders says, noting he used to be an actor. “Its power is in its honesty—even if it is sometimes difficult to convince people these films are one hundred percent unscripted because of the excellence of our casting and the opinionated characters we find.”
As we see in “A First for Friends,” some of the people love Laphroaig and—to their credit—share creative, poetic even, tasting notes:
“It’s like a bend in time.”
“It’s beautiful. Something of the moon is in the glass.”
“This is love on top of love.”
Others are not fans and express their displeasure:
“I think I’d rather have my leg cut off.”
“Why does it make me so sweaty?”
“Part of the reason we’re so excited about ‘A First for Friends’ is because the interactions are so reflective of the conversations we see online and in-person about Laphroaig, especially after people try it for the first time,” says Kale Schnettler, Beam Suntory senior brand manager, scotch & Japanese whisky, noting, “Whisky, in general, is driven by referral, usually from a trusted friend or loved one, and because of this, ‘A First for Friends’ is genuinely reflective of the scotch consumption occasion.”
Mike Matthews, who is represented by London-based Fat Lemon and has shot several spots in the #OpinionsWelcome campaign, directed “A First for Friends.” “We originally wanted to work with Mike as his background is more factual TV than advertising, and this is crucial to us as we’re not shooting to a script,” Saunders says.
Matthews shot the spot on a simple set that has each pair of friends sitting at a bar. “For the brand and the #OpinionsWelcome campaign itself, it is all about the whisky. Anything else can be disruptive, so we always try to use minimal sets that allow the viewer to focus on the individuals and their honest responses to Laphroaig,” Saunders says. “The white brick backdrop is an homage to our distillery home on the remote Scottish island of Islay and our famous white brick warehouses that line the Atlantic Ocean.”
Editor Kevin Palmer from London’s Ten Three cut “A First for Friends” (and a series of :15 seconds and teasers for this new installment in the campaign as well as spots for previous iterations of #OpinionsWelcome). “In many ways, the edit is where the work really begins. If we get the casting right, we get lots of content—sometimes up to 45 minutes for each pair,” Saunders says. “We start isolating elements that we like and then build informal edits for each pair so we can see their dynamic in isolation. Then we start forming the larger form of content, looking for consistencies in the individual edits and also things we can jar and play off against each other to create a balanced dialogue and coherent story. The struggle is always that there are many thousands of directions we could take, so knowing how to pin it down to capture the mood in the room is the art.”
At the conclusion of “A First for Friends,” consumers are invited to continue the conversation on social media using #OpinionsWelcome.
Since the inception of the campaign, thousands of people worldwide have shared their opinions in YouTube comments, Twitter exchanges, Instagram and Facebook posts and through the Laphroaig website. “Everyone likes to be heard,” Schnettler stresses. “The freedom of expression that the campaign embraces is appealing to our fans and foes alike and fosters the organic debate that Laphroaig’s divisive flavor naturally welcomes.”
“The days when a brand shouts down from a pedestal are long gone,” Saunders adds, pointing out that all the back and forth inspires people to try Laphroaig for themselves.
As for how much longer Laphroaig will rely on the #OpinionsWelcome campaign, “If the campaign can deliver the strategic and tactical tasks of the day, then it continues,” Saunders says. “We feel that as long as there are ideas bursting forth, and we can be sure that they are still relevant and disruptive, which they need to be in a category dominated by big brands and big budgets, then there is a valid place for #OpinionsWelcome to play.”
“The challenges of selling drinks to consumers today are many—an increasingly competitive marketplace, boutique and craft brands taking on the might of the big beasts, the move to healthier lifestyles, the premiumization revolution, the need for transparency of process and commitment to sustainability, a more and more brand-savvy crowd. It’s not easy out there,” Saunders says.
Brands like Laphroaig can stand out if they “stay true to themselves and find a way to engage that is truly distinctive and resonant—not just what you want to say, or what you think the consumer wants to hear.”