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Why Johnnie Walker joined the Internet of Things

Thor Olavsrud | May 27, 2015
With the help of printed electronics and an Internet of Things smart product platform, beverage giant Diageo is equipping its Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky with smart bottles.

British beverage company Diageo is the largest producer of spirits in the world and owner of some of the world's most storied brands, including Crown Royal, Smirnoff, Ketel One, Gordon's, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan and Johnnie Walker. Tradition is a byword at Diageo, but so is innovation.

"A lot of our brands are 300 or 400 years old, or even older than that," says Venky Balakrishnan Iyer, global vice president, Digital Innovation, Diageo. "There's a lot of craft and tradition that goes into creating our products. What we're trying to do here is take the latest innovations and see how we can take something that's special already and make it a richer consumer experience."

Johnnie Walker is a case in point. Nearly 200 years ago, John "Johnnie" Walker started selling his Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky in his grocer's shop. And 150 years ago, his son Alexander started selling Walker's Old Highland, the company first blended Scotch whisky. Johnnie Walker is now the most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch in the world, with annual sales in excess of 130 million bottles.

Johnnie Walk Blue gets smarter

The brand and its iconic square bottle -- first introduced in 1870 -- is well-known nearly everywhere. But it may be time for that bottle, or more specifically its label, to change with the times. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past March, Diageo and partner Thinfilm Electronics introduced a prototype "smart bottle" for the flagship Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky.

The smart bottle features a printed sensor tag made with Thinfilm's OpenSense technology. It can detect the sealed and opened state of each bottle. OpenSense uses smartphones' Near Field Communication (NFC) capabilities, allowing Diageo to send personalized communications to consumers who read the tags with their smartphones.

"Although these are very traditional product categories, there is a huge amount of digital interaction that is happening with our products," Balakrishnan says. "These are people standing in stores or bars and wondering whether they buy the single malt or the blend, highland or lowland."

In fact, he says, Diageo sees millions of searches about its brands occurring, and more than 50 percent of those searches happen through mobile within a few feet of the bottle on the shelf. Communicating with those consumers at the point of sale is a major push for Diageo, Balakrishnan says. But Thinfilm's technology goes even further, because it can detect the closed or opened state of the bottle.

Diageo wants to continue communicating with the consumer once the bottle has been opened, but it wants that interaction to be responsive. Once the bottle is opened, it's not about presenting sales information anymore.


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