Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
Ardbeg, owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), is an Islay Scotch whisky known for its strong, peaty taste. Its flavor profile is an acquired one for many, with smoke at the forefront of many creations. The brand has also built a reputation around the creative art that adorns its bottles. The traditional trappings of scotch bottles — deer, wax seals and pictures of the Scottish Highlands — are abandoned for labels featuring pirates, astronauts and dragons. It was that artistic legacy that inspired Ardbeg’s latest marketing push: A 40-page graphic novel.
“[Ardberg is] definitely an acquired taste,” said Casper MacRae, global marketing and business development director at Glenmorangie Company, also owned by LVMH. “We call it the loudest whiskey in any room and [you can] normally smell when somebody's drinking it on the other side of the room when you walk into a bar.”
In order to fully explain the brand’s unique taste and signature, it turned to an unusual medium: Comic books. The result is “Planet Ardbeg,” a graphic novel featuring three stories centered around three of Ardbeg’s most popular scotch offerings, An Oa, Wee Beastie and Ardbeg Ten Years Old. Each story is illustrated by a different artist and utilizes the science fiction genre while being heavily influenced by the underground comics of the 70s.
“It was a fun challenge to collaborate on the making of Ardbeg’s first ever graphic novel, from the initial conception right through to printing. We conducted an extensive talent search, leveraging our global network of creatives, to find three top artists who we knew would work well together. The end result is a comic that will credibly connect Ardbeg to a subculture full of passionate, creative people,” said agency creative lead Adam Woodward of TCO London, the agency that spearheaded the project, in a press statement
The campaign heavily leans into Ardbeg’s general oddness. It’s one of the creative outliers in the Scotch whisky world, and the graphic novel seeks to fully embrace that with three stories meant to take the reader on an outlandish adventure. For example, one of the comics, titled “Guardians of Oa,” with art by Sanford Greene is about a copper city that comes under attack by monsters. Another, “The Best Laid Schemes” with art by Ronald Wimberly, who also served as the project’s creative director, is a neo-western featuring gargantuan botanicals.
“We are really passionate about storytelling as a whisky and storytelling as a brand. And of course graphic novels are a fantastic medium for that form of storytelling,” said MacRae.
From the start, “Planet Ardbeg” was never supposed to be portrayed as a traditional advertisement. Instead of making a graphic novel on how Ardbeg is distilled, aged and bottled, the creative team decided to go in a totally different direction, focusing more on experience than education.
“I wanted to immerse their audience in the peaty, weird world of Ardbeg while provoking some of the complexity in concept that one might find in the flavor of a dram of Ardbeg,” said Wimberly in email comments to Marketing Dive.
While 40,000 issues of the graphic novel are being printed and sold in select markets around the world, the goal of the project wasn’t necessarily mass consumption, but to bridge the gap between comic book lovers and whiskey lovers.
“With that sort of geeky enthusiasm for the whiskey we make, one of the things we've always felt is we have an affinity for people who also have idiosyncratic interests, for people who are passionate about being into things in the way that we're passionate about being into incredibly smoky whiskey,” said MacRae. “And one of the areas that we found we had a passion for was with graphic novels.”
The creative process for the graphic novel was unique. Wimberly was invited to the distillery, which inspired the idea to portray Ardbeg’s taste through a fantasy world. The team took inspiration from heavy metal magazines of the 1970s, 2000 A.D. comics and other works to create the style for the book.
“I considered the unique look, flavors, and aromas of the whisky. I referenced them in the world building and the color design as well as the overall concept. I wanted the story to evoke how whisky itself is a time machine; how a dram of whisky contains the memory of the water, the barrel, the peat (itself a time capsule),” said Wimberly.
The creation of “Planet Ardbeg” brought in a creative team unlike that of most marketing pushes. Renowned comic book writers and illustrators were brought in for the project, including Wimberly, Greene and Emma Rìos, who worked on “Take it With a Grain of Sand.” This created an interesting creative process.
“I remember talking with Ron and TCO about the story a lot at the beginning. We wanted to separate each story by genre, but we also wanted them to connect,” said Rìos in an email. “The first premise for ‘Take It With A Grain Of Sand’ was that it should be a western, from which I ended up keeping the idea of the dry landscape, a desert, a weird desert hiding a story to evoke Ardbeg Ten Years Old.”
Greene also remarked that flavor played a big part in his stylistic choices. “The main inspiration came from my love of manga and anime combined with the Ardbeg brand, especially the flavors of An Oa,” he said.
While the concept may be an unusual one, “Planet Ardbeg” serves as a creative way to spread the word about a creative whiskey. Like Ardbeg itself, “Plant Ardbeg” isn’t made for everybody’s flavor pallets. However, like the product that inspired it, the comic book may become a classic in the right hands. It’s a highly targeted campaign in the least likely place.
“It's the story of a quantum distiller and an anthology of three stories ...We hope that appeal to comic collectors will hopefully appeal to anyone who should love artistic creativity,” said MacRae. “But if you're a fan of Ardbeg, I think going beyond that, you'll find a whole host of these threads within the comic, which are really for people who are in the know, that reward people who are either into Ardbeg or perhaps people who have followed Ardbeg over the years… Ardbeg really is a community-based whisky.”