Absolut: Vodka as a Concept
ABSOLUT: VODKA AS A CONCEPT
The history of Absolut Vodka is doubtlessly one of the most fascinating in the long history of spirits. It serves as proof that, beyond the intrinsic qualities of the product, advertising and marketing are today the real masters of a brand’s international success.
The birth of this vodka was marked by a strong Swedish personality, Lars Olsson Smith, born in Kiaby in 1836. It was said that he was already doing business at the age of ten. He started as a spirits broker and by the middle of the century controlled a third of the market, earning him the nickname brännvins- kungen, or king of brännvin. In this capa- city, L.O. Smith quickly collided with the protectionist stance of the city of Stockholm, and rather than accept its regulations, he moved to an island, Reimersholme, located a few minutes away by boat but outside the municipal jurisdiction.
Waging a veritable commercial war, his company sold its spirits at a lower price than those in the city and even offered its customers a free round trip to the island. The affront to the city was such that Stockholm extended its territorial limits, but Smith only moved to another island a little further away. Gunfire was even exchanged during this war of spirits.
L.O. Smith was also concerned about quality. He felt that the vodkas and brännvins of his time were not pure enough. When he discovered the existence of a new distilling method, rectification, he immediately started using it in his distillery. In the beginning, he used potatoes as a raw material. In 1879, he trade- marked the name “Absolut Rent brännvin”, which translates as “abso lutely pure vodka”, for his new product.
He then went into business in the Skäne region in the south of Sweden, the country’s wheat basket, and started using wheat flour instead of potatoes to make his vodkas. Once again, he drew attention to himself by waging war against the protectionist distribution system, accusing it of selling only spirits of poor quality. He even brought the unions into his boycott campaigns against stores accused of exploiting consumers. Then he turned toward exports and argued that his Vodka was the purest in the world. Altogether, Smith won and lost three fortunes in his lifetime and he died debt-ridden in 1913. In 1906, however, his son had a modern distillery built in the city of Ahus in the south of Sweden. The company was finally nationalized in 1917 with the institution of the V&S monopoly.
THE CONQUEST OF AMERICA
Absolut remained little known for many years, and the directors of V&S, more bureaucrats than salespeople, did little to develop the company.
That all changed in the 1970s with the arrival of a real manager as the president of the group. Lars Lindmark’s mission was to modernize the company and develop its exports, which had been neglected since the days of L.O. Smith. And, as the company knew little about modern sales techniques, he called on an outside consultant, Curt Nycander, to revamp Absolut’s presentation and communications policy from top to bottom. The goal was to attack the American market, the largest vodka market at the time (imports were still banned in the USSR). Everything had to be ready for 1979, the hundredth anniversary of Absolut’s trademark. That goal would eventually be reached, but in the meantime, many decisions had to be made. How should Absolut be defined, positioned, presented?
And, first of all, how should it be distributed? Lindmark and Nycander went to the United States in 1978 with their vodka samples, including Absolut, to look for an American importer. They were not well-received. None of the major groups at the time — Hiram Walker, Seagram, Brown Forman, etc. — were interested in a vodka from Sweden, a country that was practically unknown to the Americans.
Finally, the Swedes were able to interest a small importer, Carillon, whose means were much more modest than those of the larger companies. Its entire management team consisted of the owner, Al Singer, and his sales director, the Frenchman Michel Roux. They distributed the French liqueur Grand Marnier and the English gin Bombay, along with a few European wines, in the United States.
The resulting combination of highly diverse talents relied more on luck than know-how. To define the shape of the bottle, the best Swedish designers were called in, but the results were not satisfactory: a jug in the shape of a Viking, an old-style flask, a black bottle bearing the arms of the Swedish royal family, and so on.
The directors of V&S then went back to the original concept of Lars Olsson Smith: the absolute purity of the vodka. Then, by chance, Gunnar Broman, one of the Swedish advertising men, discovered in an antique store an old medicine bottle with a wider-than-usual neck.
Everyone concerned was quickly convinced once it was decided that an innovative approach would be taken and pushed to its limits: The bottle would be perfectly transparent (it took many tries before the glass-makers were able to achieve the desired transparency), it would have no label (in contradiction of all the prevailing rules) but would be silk-screened with the necessary information, and a small engraved medallion would reproduce the image of L.O. Smith as a guarantee of authenticity.
Since the English word “absolute” could not be trademarked, the shorter Swedish version “absolut” was used, giving the vodka a more Swedish air.
Everything was ready for the launch, and the first shipment of Absolut Vodka left for the United States on April 17, 1979. The next step was to devise an advertising campaign that would win over consumers. Once again, luck played a role.
Carillon’s advertising agency in the United States was bought out by a British group that handled other brands of spirits. Al Singer could no longer use the agency, so he went in search of a new one. More than one hundred agencies competed for the contract, but Michel Roux already favored the dynamic international agency that had been founded by his friend Bill Tragos and his partners in 1970. It was named TBWA after the initials of the four partners: Tragos, Claude Bonnan-ge, Uli Wiesendanger, and Paolo Ajroldi, respectively a Greek-American, a Frenchman, a Swiss, and an Italian. Once it had passed the first selection stage, TBWA was able to attack the problem of the campaign’s content. Two creative people from the New York agency, the South African Geoff Hayes and the Briton Graham Turner, were put to work. They began by using scenes from Swedish folklore, such as saunas and snowy landscapes, in a humorous way.
But once again, it was the “power of purity” message that would inspire the two men. One evening in November 1980, Hayes doodled a sketch of the bottle with a halo around it, with the caption “Absolut. The perfect vodka”. The next day, Turner took up the idea, but went further with it, proposing the slogan “Absolut perfection”. That was it. The two men made a series of sketches to show that this intangible formula — the bottle and just one word to accompany the name Absolut — had infinite possibilities. Today, more than five hundred versions of the concept have been produced by the agency and by many creative people with a variety of backgrounds.
To make the bottle irresistible, a then-unknown photographer, Steve Bronstein, had the idea of placing a piece of matt Plexiglas behind it with a lamp creating the effect of a nearly perfect halo. The campaign was launched at the end of 1980 and continues today with the same basic principles, setting a record for longevity in the advertising world. At the beginning, the ad was in black and white, with only the logo in blue. But humor and distance later came into play. On “Absolut Clarity”, for example, a magnifying glass blew up the phrase “Country of Sweden” that is printed between “Absolut” and “Vodka”. At the time, the USSR was in bad graces in the United States because of the war in Afghanistan and the destruction of a Korean airplane, and the ad stressed the fact that this was a vodka that was not at all Russian.
The simplicity, intelligence, and humor of the TBWA campaigns were quickly noticed on the American market, attracting yuppies and artistic and intellectual types. Within four years, sales grew from 10,000 to 440,000 cases.