Neil Barr: Forget the exciseman, it’s social media that raises glasses

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LONG gone are the days when Scottish distillers used to have to concoct their potent brews under the cover of darkness to hide their wares from the English taxman. Three hundred years later and the situation is very different, with high product visibility essential to success in a busy market.

While major advertising campaigns can be effective, they often siphon off more of your earnings than the early tax men tried to collect. Increasingly, companies are delving into the online realm to conquer new markets and attract more business. In figures recently released by the Scotch Whisky Association, whisky shipments jumped 23 per cent in the first nine months of 2011, contributing £3 billion to the UK export market, or over £125 per second. Brazil now consumes ten million litres, China is lapping up £47.5 million and the sleeping bear Russia is also awakening to the water of life, with a 61 per cent rise in imports across 2010.

Physical borders are no longer obstacles to market in fact, for products such as whisky, geographic disparity can actually boost consumer appetite – with authenticity and exclusivity implied via the country of origin. Digital communication plays a key role in bridging the gap between domestic produce and international consumers. Company websites have become local stores, located in every street, city and country in the world. Customers can access online showrooms to view products which would have previously been out of reach. Crucially, with the touch of a mouse they can arrange for a prize bottle to be delivered directly to their front door, wherever that may be.

Search engine optimisation is another useful method of enticing interest from consumers. This helps people to stumble across your website after performing a Google search, and can be very effective at attracting new traffic. “Keywords” is a term which is cropping up in conversation at a noticeably fast rate, being incorporated into many business’s online strategies. A smart incorporation of this tactic can combine very nicely with a well-built website and prominent social media presence enabling you to take your products to the attention of the world stage.

However, while distribution and sales are important activities which the web can help with, they are not the Holy Grail of the medium’s potential. Enhancing the identity of a brand is equally as beneficial to the long-term success of any company, particularly in the drinks industry. Digital communication can speed up this process far cheaper than any of the traditional alternatives like advertising.

The information revolution has instigated a dramatic increase in direct communication between consumer and supplier – thus cutting out the price-raising middle man. The advent of social media has also generated a more symmetrically balanced communication model – undermining traditional top-down marketing by giving consumers a voice, and a potentially global audience. This means that not only is raising awareness of your brand essential to international success, but engaging and responding with your target market is vital.

People will become more attached to brands with which they can participate in multi-directional communication flows. Companies not participating in social media are inevitably going to miss out, with communication strategies which are solely top-down coming to be viewed as increasingly outdated and elitist. Interactivity can be enhanced through social media channels, in tandem with a well-made website, enabling people to feel attached to a product. This is very important, and will be further helped by a strong online presence. Sales will inevitably increase, as will brand identity.

The Scottish whisky industry has grown from operating in an environment where too many people identifying with a producer could have resulted in a public execution. Some 300 years later, communicating and interacting with every possible market is essential for fending off competition is a busy playing field. Fortunately the internet allows for such connectivity to be a realistic possibility to even the smallest distillery, with a level of ease not associated with any other medium of communication. Hopefully the opportunities which it is presenting will be taken advantage of, letting business ferment and relationships mature.

• Neil Barr, managing director of Alienation Digital