How Johnnie Walker Is Chasing The World's Middle Class

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Charley Gallay

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."

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