The Worldwide Ardbeg Committee, a loyalty program for drinkers of Ardbeg Scotch, is a perfect example of rallying fans around a brand they love. The basis is including end-users in the company narrative and product roadmap. They get recognition as stakeholders in the brand and limited edition access to something for which they’ve already demonstrated enthusiasm. Therein lies the genius:
They didn’t start from scratch.
Ardbeg went to an already thriving fan base and honored them by special invitation. It was almost a secret handshake vibe. As I write this, in front of me is the membership booklet hidden under the bottle in the deep box that holds my Ardbeg Corryvreckan. It’s as small as a gospel tract, bears the Ardbeg Committee logo, and the cover phrase, “a welcome committee”. I’m being courted by the illuminati of this daring spirit. The last page has a tiny membership form for joining. And they’re right about me; I’m a fan. I’m reading a note buried arm-deep in the packaging, because I prize the thing on top of it.
They had no crisis of identity.
Ardbeg is clear on who they are. As with our own personal identities and narratives, this comes from being seasoned, with a long, built up history of doing what works, and what we’re passionate about without apology. Joseph V Micallef writes in Huffpost:
No whisky distillery has been more successful in fostering and embracing its “bad boy” image, while at the same time creating legions of loyal fans around the world, than the Ardbeg Distillery. Its powerful, peated whiskies seem the quintessential, bad boy rebel to the conventional, “establishment whiskies” of Speyside and the Lowlands. If Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are Scotch’s equivalent of the cheerleader squad or king and queen of the prom, then Ardbeg is the black leather jacket clad greaser who rides a motorcycle to school and cuts class to grab a smoke behind the gym. In other words, if Speyside is cool, suave, sophisticated George Clooney, then Ardbeg is Shia LaBeouf.
They committed to their beta-testers.
Ardbeg tests new variations with their Committee members, who get BOTH the benefit of exclusive access to special vintages, bottlings, and tastings, and ALSO a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts to DISCUSS those variations. Feedback to the company is honest, candid, and invaluable and, when Arbdeg has a ‘winner’, and it’s released, there’s already an excited buzz and missionary disseminators of the good news.
That term “committee” implies something a lot of companies are too scared to offer–that you can be part of the narrative. We try to control the narrative about our brand. Ardbeg was ballsy and made it open ended. They got into a deep, reciprocal relationship with reality by acknowledging that, despite their history, their future story is fluid. Fans ALREADY determine what a brand means; you either accept that and get ahead of it by empowering and honoring them, or you chase after it when it goes places you haven’t prepared.
They made evangelism a duty.
Like the gentleman’s clubs of old, they asked members to take on a singular mission–introducing others to the thing they love. Ardbeg knows its Scotch whiskey drinkers are a dedicated bunch. You have to be to like an Islay Scotch in the first place. Islays are peaty concoctions for tough old peats that inspire songs and comradery the way a cigar leads men to lounging and punctuating boisterous stories with barings of the soul.
Similarly, when my colleagues come to town, I invite them for a cigar at the Nat Sherman Townhouse or Carnegie Club, because I feel a duty to share the best of everything I can find. If they asked me for a Scotch recommendation, incidentally, Arbdeg’s above-entry-level whiskies would be in the top 5 on my list (who wants “entry level” anyway?). So you see, I’m a good candidate, because I’m already a brand evangelist. Secretly, Ardbeggers, my favorite Scotch is still Lagavulin 16, but Ardbeg Corryvreckan is right up there–it’s the wild, dangerous ship-swallowing whirlpool of Scotch whiskey–aggressive, edgy, and a bit of a temper. It’s a great fit for my palate.
Stories are inherently shared. We tell them and have an audience, but the natural response is for the next guy to take up the stick, stir the fire, and add a stanza of his own. This is what we do–what we’ve always done, in the dark outside the cave, in the clearing beyond the thick of the forest. It’s how we share the things we treasure. If we want our brands to be beloved, our missions to be embraced, we must not only know who we are and the story we want to tell; we must invite others to become co-creators with us.