Monday, August 15, 2011

A Weed Grows At Diageo.

I have two articles in the current issue (number 97) of Whisky Magazine. One of them is about how Diageo has mis-managed its American whiskey portfolio.

One thread that didn’t quite make the final edit was about Jeremiah Weed.

Diageo is a big brands company. Its portfolio includes Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, José Cuervo, Tanqueray, and Crown Royal. Its whiskey credibility comes from owning Talisker, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Lagavulin, and Oban. Its American whiskeys are Bulleit, I. W. Harper, and George Dickel.

Then there is Jeremiah Weed, one of Diageo’s tiniest brands.

Jeremiah Weed stands for the proposition that people buy brands, not categories. As small as it is, Jeremiah Weed has products in at least five different categories: blended bourbon whiskey, flavored blended bourbon whiskey, flavored vodka, liqueurs, and flavored malt beverages.

The official categories are played down, of course. Instead, Diageo divides the six spirits products between “Sweet Tea” and “Bourbon,” and has “Malt Beverages” as a third group. The spirits products are 35% to 50% abv and sold in 750 ml bottles. The malt products are 5.8% abv and sold in 12 ounce and 23.5 ounce cans.

There are nine Weed products in five categories, but everything is sold using the image of the original product, a 50% abv bourbon-based liqueur created in the late 1960s to compete with Southern Comfort. Along the way, it developed cult status among American Air Force jet fighter pilots, a prestigious if tiny market niche. Diageo seems to have rediscovered Weed about three years ago. Every product except the liqueur is new.

“People like the name,” says Yvonne Briese, Vice President Marketing, Whisky, Diageo NA. She describes the image as, “a mixture of bad-ass and Southern gentleman.”

Which sounds like another way of saying, “the Jack Daniel’s drinker.”

In recent marketing efforts, Diageo had created a fictional Jeremiah Weed, who talks from time to time, and a fictional association with Weed, Kentucky. A real place, though just barely, it has no connection with the product or the company.

Except for a major TV campaign for the flavored malt beverages (Spiked Cola, Lightning Lemonade and Roadhouse Tea), most of the marketing for Jeremiah Weed has been in social media and other internet channels. To some extent, Diageo seems to be just running ideas up the flagpole, as the old ad industry saying used to go, to see if anybody salutes them. The company professes to be happy with the results.

Since this blog is usually about American whiskey, I’ll mention that Jeremiah Weed Blended Bourbon and Jeremiah Weed Cherry Mash Flavored Blended Bourbon are half straight bourbon, half vodka; plus cherry flavoring in the Cherry Mash version. The original Jeremiah Weed liqueur and the Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Flavored Vodka with Bourbon Whiskey each contain an unknown amount of bourbon, though certainly much less than 50%.

I’ve tried the blended bourbon. It’s not ghastly.

Diageo has one operating whiskey distillery in the United States, George Dickel in Tennessee, which only makes George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. Diageo’s bourbons and bourbon-containing products use spirit made by other distilleries, though much of it is aged at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which has not distilled anything itself since 1992.

Diageo has so many predecessor companies that tracking any product in its portfolio is like sorting through the Biblical begats. Jeremiah Weed was created by Heublein, which was independent until it was acquired by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco (RJR) in 1982. RJR sold it to Grand Metropolitan in 1987. Grand Met merged with Guinness in 1997 to form Diageo. The big prize in all three deals was Smirnoff Vodka, but Jeremiah Weed went along for the ride.

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