In 2005, Johnnie Walker partnered with the McLaren Mercedes F1 team to accomplish three primary objectives: support the brand’s global positioning, build exposure in emerging markets and promote responsible drinking.  

Like any long-term partnership, the Diageo plc brand has evolved the program over the past nine years. One primary focus: expanding reach beyond race markets through the Step Inside the Circuit digital activation campaign.

Calling from Amsterdam, Ewan Topping, global marketing manager, Johnnie Walker sponsorship, spoke with IEG SR about the evolution of the F1 program, lessons learned from the brand’s digital activation campaign, the new iteration of the Join the Pact responsible drinking campaign and other topics.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

On the thinking behind the McLaren partnership
Johnnie Walker is the world’s number one scotch whisky. As a brand, Johnnie Walker is forward-looking and stands for progress on a global level. Given our global iconic nature we want to be associated with global properties that have a similar level of gravitas.

Formula One is innovative, forward-looking and has a constant desire to be the best. Those are values that resonate deeply with us.

On the evolution of the F1 program
When we first got into Formula One the fact that we were there was news. It was about building our association with the sport, with a big focus on responsible drinking, and there was a lot of activity in race markets.

The sponsorship has evolved over time. It’s not about the sticker on the car—it goes much further than that. We have worked with McLaren to build a brand world around the sponsorship and appeal to more than just motorsports fans.  

Formula One is globally recognized as one of the world’s most glamorous lifestyle sports, and we have built an association with the lifestyle of Formula One. We don’t use assets in the classical way that other sponsors have done such as touring people around the garage and using show cars. We leverage the partnership with immersive digital content that provides reach to a much wider audience.

We want to be unique in the Formula One world by focusing on the Formula One lifestyle. That’s something that few other brands do.

On the Step Inside The Circuit campaign
In the last four years we have placed more focus on content creation through the Step Inside the Circuit campaign. The content gives viewers an insider’s view into the stories and lifestyle of Formula One.

We launched the campaign by producing lots of small vignette films that provided an insider’s look at the team and their continuous pursuit of progress. We created content specific to some of the best Formula One races: Monaco, Singapore and Brazil. Those races give us an activation platform in our three key regions.

We post the content on Johnnie Walker’s YouTube site and Facebook page. We also have arrangements with TV broadcasters because of the quality of content we produce. A lot of broadcasters have the right to broadcast races, but they don’t have the bandwidth to create their own content. We’ve been able to work with them to get our message out on TV in a nontraditional way.

Our film last year was called the “Ultimate Walk” and represented Jenson Button walking through different aspects of the Formula One world. The video was viewed by more than five million users globally and helped build a credible association between Johnnie Walker and the world of Formula One.

On lessons learned from the digital campaign


Quality sells content. Above everything else, quality sells content. We come from the angle of wanting people to use and watch our content, and people only do that if it’s compelling. That’s about finding something to stand for and standing strongly behind it.

Short, impactful content. We started with content that we thought was appealing, but in the digital world people have very limited time. They want something that is instantly impactful and will be an instant ‘wow, I need to watch this.’ That’s not going to be the case if people need to engage content for five to ten minutes. Everyone is so time poor that it has to look good and kick them in the ass.

Less is more. In the beginning we said ‘let’s deliver lots of content that can appeal to different niche interests.” We have since scaled back with fewer, bigger pieces that drive massive reach and that can be activated in local markets.

If you give local markets an array of choices then you get lots of things done on a small scale. If you have a smaller number of assets that are produced in a premium way you get more activation and global scale.

It seems obvious, but there’s always a balance in a global marketing role. We want to deliver content for individual markets that delivers a global message as well.


On promoting a responsible driving message
The Join the Pact campaign is the cornerstone of our responsible drinking efforts. We use Formula One to promote the message to not drink and drive. People often wonder how an alcohol brand and motorsports can go together.

We set out on a mission in 2006 to ask consumers to give their commitment to not drink and drive by signing a pact. But the digital landscape has changed since we set off on that initiative, so last year we re-launched the program to update it for the current generation.

Mika Häkkinen has been our responsible drinking ambassador since 2006, and we used him last year to re-launch and re-energize the campaign. Today we have a million signatures and want to add another million commitments over the next year and a half.

We now give something back given the way people interact with brands and what they expect from brands. We’ll deliver one million kilometers of safe rides home for people who join the pact. That helps us support our positioning of getting the world home safely.

We promote the campaign over social media channels using the Imnotdriving hashtag. People are hearing the message and talking action, which is what we want to happen.

We back up the program with impactful communication that brings the message home in unconventional and interesting ways like a video of a glass car shattering or Mikka burning rubber into a tarmac. The central message is that winners always stay in control, and how can we use control in fun and interesting ways to bring our message to drinkers.