How Johnnie Walker Is Chasing The World's Middle Class

Nov 24, 2013
Originally published on November 25, 2013 10:39 am

Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky is just about everywhere. You can find the distinctive square bottle in bars, liquor stores and supermarkets from Milwaukee to Mumbai.

According to the trade magazine Drinks International, Johnnie Walker is the ninth best-selling brand of distilled spirit in the world. And it's getting bigger.

Afshin Molavi, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, says it's all part of one of the biggest recent trends in global economics: the rapid growth of the middle class.

In Foreign Policy, Molavi writes about how a small general store founded by "a young John Walker" in 1819 transformed into "part of a massive conglomerate" with concerns around the globe. Now, five of Johnnie Walker's top seven global markets are in emerging markets.

Molavi tells NPR's Arun Rath that Johnnie Walker's success has followed the economic rise of countries like Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and India.

"We're looking at another 3 billion people entering the global middle class by the year 2030," says Molavi. "So what are companies like Johnnie Walker's parent company, Diageo, doing? They're chasing that global middle class — as is McDonald's, as is Starbucks."

In particular, Molavi says, companies like Johnnie Walker are targeting the "global aspirational middle classes," groups that are rising economically.

Molavi says a key element of Johnnie Walker's success is its advertising pitch in these countries.

One recent Johnnie Walker commercial in Mexico, for example, doesn't even feature a single shot of whisky. Instead, Molavi says, the "keep walking" tagline is more of a metaphor for Mexico's economic growth.

With this ad and others, he says, Johnnie Walker is "really kind of playing on nationalism, national aspiration, national achievement."

For Johnnie Walker's global ambitions, Molavi says, the iconic "striding man" logo makes for an effective symbol.

"When you look at today's striding man, he's just a silhouette," Molavi says. "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 an everyman."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


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.


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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.