Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

You can find Johnnie Walker whiskey in pretty much every country in the world, even places where alcohol is banned. One hundred and twenty million of those iconic square bottles with the little walking man on them were sold worldwide last year. And it's no accident that the blended Scotch whiskey is rising in popularity, especially in places with the booming middle class, from South America to Africa.

Afshin Molavi is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. He recently wrote about Johnnie Walker's global domination in Foreign Policy magazine. He joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Afshin.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Hi there. Nice to be with you.

RATH: So I want to start with a bit of tape. This is from a commercial for Johnnie Walker. This is from Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNIE WALKER AD)

RATH: Since this is radio, we know - understand it's dramatic, but you better describe what's going on.

MOLAVI: It's a great ad. You have a group of Mexicans, many of them looking quite middle class, walking up a hill, but they are bound by a chain. And as they walk up and up and up, this chain is attached to a boulder. And at some point, the chains snap, everyone falls to the ground, blackbirds circle above. And suddenly, one by one, they begin to unburden themselves from the ropes and the chains, and they walk up, up, up, up the mountain. And suddenly, you cue the soaring and inspiring music and the blue sky vistas. At the very end of this advertisement, you see the tag line: Keep walking Mexico, with that iconic Johnnie Walker brand.

RATH: You think that Johnnie Walker's trying to do something more with this ad, right?

MOLAVI: Absolutely. I mean, in many ways, Johnnie Walker has set itself up as this kind of global aspirational drink of the middle class. They have an ad in Greece. And in the ad, it says something like, keep walking even though there's rain, even though there's a storm. And keep walking with hope in your hearts. And so they're really kind of playing on, you know, nationalism, national aspiration, national achievement. And they seem to be doing a pretty good job.

RATH: I've been preaching about the transformative power of whiskey for a long time and nobody's listened to me.

(LAUGHTER)

MOLAVI: That's right. That's right. And, you know, but what's interesting is where they're growing. They're really growing in the emerging markets. We're looking at another three billion people entering the global middle class by the year 2030. So what are companies like Johnnie Walker's parent company Diageo doing? They're chasing that global middle class, as is McDonalds, as is Starbucks.

And the way Diageo and Johnnie Walker are doing it is they're targeting what I call the GLAMS, the global aspirational middle classes, the ones who are rising. And they're urging them to keep walking, and they're urging them as they walk - oh, by the way, as they say in Scotland, take a wee dram of whiskey along the way.

RATH: Is there a reason why whiskey is a better measure of this kind of growth than other things, say, like, you know, caviar or Humvees?

MOLAVI: You know, it's a good question. I think whiskey's a - maybe a little bit more accessible, particularly the red label, which is kind of the entry level brand. Johnnie Walker has become something like Rolex and Louis Vuitton in the sense that even if you can't afford it, there are actual Johnnie Walker fakes that you can purchase in stores and put them on your mantel piece. You may not want to drink it, but you want to show your guests that, yes, you too can afford Johnnie Walker scotch whiskey.

But it's a - what's interesting about this story is this was a company founded in 1819 as a small general grocer in Scotland. And then around the early 20th century, the sons of the original founder, John Walker, really began effectively marketing this brand. And over lunch, writing on the back of a napkin, an advertiser by the name of Tom Brown created the striding man icon.

And when you look at today's striding man, today's striding man is just a silhouette. So in a sense, he could be anyone. He could be you. He could be someone in Africa, someone in India, someone in China. And so they've done a pretty good job of kind of making the striding man in every man.

RATH: Afshin Molavi. His article on Johnny Walker appears in Foreign Policy magazine, and it's called "Straight Up." Afshin, thank you so much.

MOLAVI: Thank you.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.