The old maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t change it” holds true for Absolut vodka. Since 1980, the vodka manufacturer has been running essentially the same print advertising campaign where the ads in the campaign make sly reference to Absolut’s distinctive stubby neck and see-through label bottle with tongue-in-cheek variations to the two word tagline.
“We understand that we’re selling vodka; we’re not selling ads,” explained Richard Lewis, worldwide account representative for TBWAChiatDay, the advertising agency for V&S Vin & Sprit AB, which produces Absolut. “The hero is the bottle. The bottle is the star.”
When the campaign began in 1980, the U.S. vodka market totaled about 40 million cases per year. Imported vodka contributed some 450,000 cases of that total and most of it was Russian-made Stolichnaya.
Absolut, which is manufactured in Sweden, sold a mere 10,000 cases. Playing on provenance, Russia clearly had the market on authenticity, according to Lewis. This was because whenever one thought of vodka, one associated it with Russia. Brands took names that sounded Russian even if they weren’t made there. Absolut sounded like quality but was definitely not a brand name.
The history of Absolut can be traced back to 1879, the year when Lars Olsson Smith, dubbed the Swedish “King of Vodka”, started making his “Absolut Rent Brännvin” based on a brand-new distillation method. “Absolut Rent Brännvin” in Swedish means “Absolutely pure vodka”
Fast-forward a century later, with the 100 year anniversary of “Absolutely Pure Vodka” approaching, the new President of the Swedish Wine and Sprits Corporation; Lars Lindmark made the decision to export a new premium range of vodka. The finest vodka modern distilling techniques could produce, a new product, a century old. That was Absolut Vodka.
However with little experience in advertising, packaging and product positioning, he called in an outside consultant, Curt Nycander, to head the project.
Nycander teamed up with marketing expert, Peter Ekelund, and Lars Börje Carlsson and Gunnar Broman, owners of the Swedish ad agency Carlsson and Broman. The team set about trying to come up with a new positioning for the new Absolut Vodka.
At first, the ideas centered around the traditional Swedish origins of the brand. There were a number of early suggestions on the name of the vodka.
The Absolut Vodka team then went to New York and met up with the ad agency NW Ayer where they presented their ideas. Some were thrilled by the Swedes’ enthusiasm and ideas but most of the people at NW Ayer shook their heads and thought “who wants to drink a vodka from Sweden anyway? “
After many meetings and arguements, NW Ayer and the Swedish team agreed on their alternative “Absolut Country of Sweden Vodka”. The bottle would be made of clear glass with silver text on it. They did tests where they visited liquor stores and put their different bottles among the other big brands just to see how it would look like. Was the bottle visible or was it invisible? One of the people working with the Absolut account; Myron Poloner fell in love with the bottle. He could sit and watch the “medicine bottle” for hours and one night a thought struck him. The bottle should have no label at all. One should be able to see right through it. The vodka should be a premium vodka for well-educated people with a high income who afforded to eat out and liked to hold parties at their home and liked to show-off.
The next move was to find a distributor in the US. They met reception colder than a chilled cocktail glass. “Who has ever heard of a Swedish vodka? And it doesn’t have a label, it’ll disappear on the shelf. It will never sell!”
One company that didn’t lack foresight was Carillion Importers Ltd. who was based on Manhattan. The company was led by Al Singer, who was ready to accept the challenge the moment he saw the product. The company only had one salesman, Michel Roux, who was to play a leading role in the marketing and distribution of Absolut Vodka. Al Singer didn’t want to work with NW Ayer, he wanted a smaller agency and chose Martin Landey Arlow to do the job instead.
Martin Landey and Al Singer wanted to do some changes on the bottle; more height, thicker bottom. As a joke one of Göran Broman’s employees put a coin on the bottle’s shoulder. The Americans loved it, so Broman’s staff created a seal. They did shields, swords, guns, naked women, men’s heads etc. Gunnar Broman’s office was ironically located in L.O. Smith’s old house, and since he was the man who had invented Absolut Rent Braennvin a century ago why not put him on the bottle? The bottle then took on a longer neck, with calligraphy text and block letters, and a metallic colored cap instead of a cork. The new president of Vin & Sprit AB, Lars Lindmark, decided that the ABSOLUT VODKA letters should be blue for the 80 proof bottles and red for the 100 proof ones.
Martin Landey ended the deal with Carillion because of another client in the same business who was far more profitable at that time. However Landey’s old partner at TBWA in New York heard about Carillion and contacted Al Singer. They got the account. South African art director Geoff Hayes and Graham Turner was asked to come up with a campaign for Absolut Vodka.
The Stockholm team had taken great care to outline a campaign for the new product based on very specific guidelines – all advertising should center around the bottle, the product should not be identified with any particular lifestyle and the approach should have a timeless yet contemporary feel to it.
Thousands of miles away, Hayes took these ideas one step further. The story goes that the idea for “Absolut Perfection” and the Absolut Vodka campaign came to him while in the bathtub. At that moment, in a New York bathtub, 400 years of Swedish tradition became a modern phenomenon.
Another story purports that one night Hayes was watching television while doing some sketching. He tried to find a symbol of purity and simplicity, and drew a halo. All of a sudden his floor was covered with different ad-ideas, all with a humoristic twist.
What Hayes had done was to differentiate and position the product from their competitors, conveying its message through various imagery, sophisticate wit, implication and personification that Absolut vodka is slightly different from other types and brands of spirits.
This concept became the core of a whole type of advertising that stretched the boundaries between advertising and art. The ads are all witty variations on the same simple theme: a picture of the Absolut Vodka bottle with a two to three word caption starting with the word Absolut and often saying something complimentary about the product or its consumer. A flash of recognition comes as you make the unlikely connection. The Absolut tagline reinforced the name until it did sound like a brand.
The next day, Hayes showed his ads to Graham. They changed the name for the Absolut Purity ad to Absolut Perfection. Another ad was the bottle with wings; Absolut Heaven. Fifteen minutes later they had a dozen different ads. TBWA and Carillion loved it.
And the rest as we know it is history…
Acquired by the well known Pernod Ricard in 2008, Absolut Vodka, now trading as ‘The Absolut Company’ faces many opportunities as its new owners seek to capitalise on the well known reputation of this premium brand.
There have also been regional variations, including a bottle-shaped swimming pool for the Los Angeles market and a bottle in the shape of New York’s Central Park. In Philadelphia, Absolut ads offered a likeness of Ben Franklin wearing bottle-shaped spectacles.
The story of Absolut Art began in 1985, when Andy Warhol was commisioned to do a painting of the Absolut Vodka bottle. When the painting appeared as an ad it was an incredible success and got immediate worldwide media attention. Absolut Vodka went from popular vodka to pop art and became an icon. Absolut Art had begun. Warhol later recommended one of his young protégés, Keith Haring, who had risen to fame with his anonymous paintings in the New York subway. Absolut commissioned its second painting. Works then followed from Kenny Scharf, Stephen Sprouse, Edward Ruscha, Arman, Britto and other leading American artists. To date, over 350 artists have been commissoned, with literally hundreds on the waiting list.
While contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring have done ads for Absolut, the company has run ads painted in the style of Rubens and other old masters. Fashion designers Gianni Versace, Helmut Lang, Manolo Blahnik and Anna Molinari have created clothing for ads and promotions; celebrity photographers Herb Ritts and Annie Liebowitz also have taken part. Ads have incorporated album covers from David Bowie, Miles Davis and the Velvet Underground.
None of the ads was subjected to a focus group or other research before it ran, according to Lewis. Yet they have become such a part of pop culture that Lewis’s 1996 book on the campaign, Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story, sold 300,000 copies. In the book, Lewis describes such behind-the-scenes schemes as using wheat to attract pigeons in Piazza San Marco to form the shape of a bottle of Absolut Venice.
The campaign’s creativity has earned it free publicity as well. A magazine insert that was a working snow globe became the subject of dozens of news stories one December. When Absolut packaged 500,000 ties with its Father’s Day ad in the New York Times, Regis Philbin wore one of them on his talk show the next day.
Facts & stats
While the U.S. market for vodka has declined, to 36 million cases in 2000, Absolut’s share has risen dramatically to 4.5 million cases, more than half of all the imported brands.
In Advertising Age’s listing of the top 10 ad campaigns of the 20th Century, Absolut’s was the only one that did not use television.
Vodka and the 21st century cocktail culture today
A highly compatible and popular mixer, vodka has increased in popularity, being used extensively in cocktails. The cocktail culture is thriving in many global markets and although sales of vodka in the heartland of Eastern Europe has seen a notable decline in popularity, its popularity in Western Europe has continued to surge through a mix of strong branding, popularity of cocktails/long drinks and product innovations, such as the incorporation of flavours.
While total global sales of vodka is on the decline, the total value of vodka sales has grown. This highlights that manufacturers are developing a high value added product, and consumers are willing to pay for it. Crucial to success is achieving great distribution coverage, and for the product to be exposed in the right exclusive setting,for example, getting bar tenders to use the vodka in their cocktails.
The late 90’s saw the emergence of super-premium vodkas such as Grey Goose & Belvedere. Vodka drinkers were prepared to pay very high prices for these new brands, based on the marketing message that they were purer, and tasted better. Creating this perception of luxury is vital, necessitating high prices and classy packaging. Grey Goose, a super premium vodka brand ships their vodka in classic wooden containers.
The Swedish Absolut brand had created an exclusive image two decades earlier in export markets. Absolut became famous through its iconic advertising and packaging design. The classic campaign, devised by advertising agency TBWA realised over 1,500 creative ads, making it one of the longest ever advertising campaigns. The ad campaign has adorned art galleries, and popular culture exhibits across the world, won over 150 advertising awards and numerous advertising accolades, and spawned Absolut advertising books.
There now over ten different Absolut vodka brands incorporating a variety of flavours, including Absolut Peppar, Absolut Citron (lemon flavoured), Absolut Kurant (blackcurrent flavoured), Absolut Mandarin, Absolut Vanilla, Absolut Raspberri, Absolut Apeach, Absolut Ruby Red, Absolut Pears, Absolut 100 and Absolut Mango . Absolut Peppar became the first of the brand extensions launched in 1986, with subsequant flavours rolled out over the intervening period. Absolut Citreon and Absolut Mandarin are the firm’s bestselling brand extenstion flavours. The company’s “Find Your Flavour” television advertising campaign was launched to develop awareness of the choice of flavours on offer to Absolut customers. The lack of a distinctive taste from traditional vodka, made it very condusive for flavours to be added.
Since the takeover the Absolut brand by Pernod Ricard, a different approach to marketing has been adopted and the firm are employing experiential marketing techniques to promote the brand.
In line with this, the firm created their global advertising campaign “In an Absolut World”, where they challenge a bold and optimistic view of the world and encourage people to question what the world would be like if everything was a little more ‘Absolut’.
“In an ABSOLUT World” is a powerful campaign that provides a rich framework for the ABSOLUT brand that builds on the foundation established by ‘The Absolutes’ campaign last year. Our consumers are intelligent, and we hope they have a gut reaction that sparks conversations and challenges them to think about their vision of an “ABSOLUT World,” says Tim Murphy, Senior Brand Director, The Absolut Spirits Company, Inc.
This campaign has also seen the brand launch several limited edition bottles, such as Absolut Naked, with the tagline, “In an Absolut World, there are no labels”. This was to support the brand’s “No label” campaign, encouraging customers from around the world to discard their labels and prejudices about sexual minorities.
How successful will this consumer-interactive approach to marketing be? Will it be more distinctive? With more vodka competitors launching premium vodka brand extensions and a more health-concious target audience, the challenge is to come up with good ones.
No… make that ABSOLUTELY good ones. Cheers!
McGraw-Hill 2009, Principles and Practice of Marketing, David Jobber