Can Scotch Win More American Hearts and Minds? Brand Building with Ardbeg’s Cameron George

Can Scotch Win More American Hearts and Minds? Brand Building with Ardbeg’s Cameron George

Cameron George

In a whisky world pushing press around master distillers and blenders, one group with outsized market impact doesn’t always get the spotlight: professional brand ambassadors. They’re the folks often closest to accounts both on and off-premises, promoting brands at large-scale events, and tackling entry into new markets one at a time.

Few spirits in the U.S. feel that impact more heavily than Scotch. Ambassadors interact with thousands of potential customers each year, relaying knowledge and practices from across the pond. Most importantly, they’re helping build brand identity — and differentiation — in one of the oldest and most crowded categories around.

As Ardbeg‘s U.S. National Brand Ambassador, Cameron George is one of the industry’s true road warriors. And one of his main challenges is to make Ardbeg stand out to increasingly savvy (and picky) whisky consumers. Drinkhacker caught up with George to talk about Scotch’s place in American spirits, competing with his colleagues in other markets, and building a brand “for weirdos.”

Note: This interview has been edited for readability. 

Drinkhacker: Where do you think Ardbeg is positioned as far as American consumer perception?

Cameron George: When I was hired almost five years ago, the rough job description was very simple and very short. It was to win hearts and minds on behalf of the Ardbeg Distillery and brand. That’s effectively my entire job. It feels nondescript and amorphous. Ardbeg’s positioning here in the U.S. is very, very strong. This is the number one market for the brand in the world globally.

But I will say that we are actually in grave danger of being surpassed by our friends in Japan as the number one market. That could take place as early as 2024 or early 2025 if I don’t do my job even better than I’ve been doing it the last five years. I think we’re in a really interesting time for whisky as a category where it’s not necessarily trending in the right direction. There are other global categories that have started to eat some of the market share of specifically Scotch. Interestingly, the Ardbeg community though has never been stronger.

We are a ragtag kind of small brand. We are outside of the top 11 single malt Scotch whisky brands in the world in terms of gross volume. But in terms of collectability and dollars generated at auction and on the secondary market, Ardbeg is actually the second largest brand in that space. We have an unequal share of mind when it comes to brand size and scale versus value offered. That’s one of the things that we’re very proud of and one of the things that we’ve all worked very hard for, for the brand over the last 207 years to generate that foothold!

Drinkhacker: A perception of Ardbeg is that it’s a brand that can be a little funky and a little irreverent in a way that people really connect with.

Cameron George: One of the beautiful things about Ardbeg — this quirky, kind of weird brand — is that we’re all weirdos. Everybody is strange and everybody is very unique in their own right. Ardbeg is a brand that has this unique style of communication and is never afraid to be itself. I think that communicates itself in two ways to consumers. First off, people who are very assured of themselves and love big flavors absolutely gravitate to Ardbeg because we embrace those characteristics. And then also sometimes people who may be a little bit more timid, soft-spoken, maybe a little bit more reserved: They revere the brand for its ability to communicate itself and stand on its own two legs the way that sometimes they wish they were more able to do in their own personal lives.

Drinkhacker: How much lead time do you tend to get between when you find out about a new expression or release campaign and your ability to actually plan and execute on that?

Cameron George: It is very interesting. So at the beginning of the year, they will generally present us with a rough deck of what’s going to occur the following year, or at least, we aim to have that deck completed in the first quarter of the year. Usually we know about concepts as they are being birthed quite a few months before they’re coming into reality. We know about the idea pretty far before the whisky is actually put into its packaging and put through TTB submission and all those things. Sometimes though, there are bottles that come out of completely out of left field.

Part of the job of an ambassador is to be flexible, to be scalable, and to be able to pivot at the change of a hat. Then it’s incumbent on myself and our ambassador team to do the due diligence of understanding why that whisky is so unique. We did a kind of proprietary treatment on the heads of the cask [of our latest Committee Release], which was basically grooving and carving out a spiral cut on the heads of the cask to increase surface area. Understanding why and how that will affect a whisky’s flavor profile isn’t communicated to us by the brand team. That is incumbent on our ambassador team. That’s why we take education very, very seriously. Not just in whisky, but also in understanding things like how sherry wines are made and understanding why certain regions and styles of winemaking are so special.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

1 Comments

  1. Thomas B Cohoon on February 26, 2024 at 9:55 am

    This wonderful and all, but …. nothing is going to help Scotch Single Malt sales in the U.S. more than pricing and availability. I’ve never had less selection and consistently seen prices from 1.2x up to 2x MSRP. Online shopping between shipping costs and actually getting what you order is a crapshoot.

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