DBA Design, Effectiveness Award
What happens when you divert one year’s worth of advertising spend into building the first ever brand home for the world’s biggest whisky? Johnnie Walker found out when we created The Johnnie Walker House, Shanghai.
Caught up in an escalating arms race of advertising spend in China, Johnnie Walker wanted to find another way to gain market supremacy.
Build a house.
Not just any house, but a luxurious, ultra-VIP-only energy space rich in authentic brand stories, whisky-making craft and magical brand localisation. A house that would transform guests from whisky-curious to brand evangelists.
Housed in a mansion located in Shanghai’s former French Concession neighbourhood, this four-storey space provided an intimate canvas to tell the story of the world’s biggest whisky brand. It opened in late spring 2010 to a media frenzy, selling over $500,000 worth of Johnnie Walker on the opening night.
Luxury can be about scale, beauty and drama, but it’s also about the little touches, the attention to detail, the magical discoveries.
The Shanghai House was the equivalent of the room in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory where everything is edible, but in this case everything was ‘whisky’ – walls, floors and even the bathroom doors.
Throughout, the fabric of the space was reflected in well chosen and storied ‘whisky’ materials. Walls made of peat bricks, resin suspended barley and copper combined with flooring made of differing types of oak created a total whisky environment for visitors to walk into.
When the Queen is in residence, the Royal Standard flies above Buckingham Palace.
In a similar fashion, we wanted a way to signal that The Striding Man, the spiritual icon of the brand, was ever-present in his brand home.
A simple hat stand with a top hat seemed to do the job nicely.
The centrepiece of the whole experience was ‘The Blender’s Room’, a library of Diageo malts used in the blending of Johnnie Walker whiskies. A live surface table activated a high-definition flavour story as each bottle was set down, giving guests not only a delightful surprise, but a richly immersive dive into the unfolding flavours of each blend.
The final step along the journey was the third-floor bar, which accommodated a snug, a dining area and a whisky tumbler ceiling installation as an entranceway.
Johnnie Walker has archival evidence of the brand trading in China way back in 1910. Amid the luxury land grab happening in Shanghai in the late 2000s, we thought the locals would appreciate a whisky that was no fair-weather opportunist, but a long-standing friend.
To celebrate this cultural exchange, we recommended that Johnnie Walker create a set of ceramic Willow Pattern bottles depicting the whisky’s journey from Scotland to China in 1910. Exclusive to the Shanghai House, these bottles became celebrities in their own right, winning multiple global design awards and going on to be commercialised at every take-down of the brand around the world.
Following the success of the Shanghai House, the brand turned its attention to Beijing and a larger space situated in the Embassy District, near Tiananmen Square.
Whereas Shanghai had one bar, the Beijing House had three. The basement area was the largest, doubling up as an event space. We called it ‘Distillery’ to signal the intention of the space - to distil whisky and local culture.
Situated in the stylish Gangnam district of Seoul, this Johnnie Walker House would be the biggest statement of all the houses.
Spread over seven floors, it would accommodate retail, three bars, a bartender academy, a personalisation boutique, a Korean open kitchen, a seven-floor hanging sculpture and a rooftop terrace.
Even for a brand like Johnnie Walker, this was a big canvas to paint.
Working with local artists to remix brand iconography became one of our favourite ways to inject modernity and fresh cultural relevancy into the brand. In this case, we approached Korean artist Park Chan-Girl to create a stunning sculpture of The Striding Man for the building’s entrance space.
Our Korean clients were keen to introduce cutting-edge digital experiences to the Seoul House, but we didn’t want to do tech for tech’s sake. A dilemma. At the same time, there was a big push within the brand to articulate the complexity, boldness and beauty of Johnnie Walker’s luxury whiskies.
We thought perhaps there was an opportunity to create a digital film that visually articulated the dramatic flavour of Johnnie Walker’s pinnacle blend, Blue Label, as it develops on the tongue. Quite an ambition at the time, but here it is.
The seven-storey building had a spiral staircase that drilled through the centre of the structure from rooftop to basement. We had an idea of a hanging sculpture that could ‘fall’ through the floors.
We approached Korean artist Byoungho Kim to create a waterfall of whisky that would culminate in a single drop.
A final, smaller Johnnie Walker House launched in Chengdu, inspired by the signature storytelling pieces established in the first three houses. This one was notable for its stepping-stone pool leading to a giant semi-submerged Striding Man. Why not, right?