Absolut Vodka. Sweden, 1979
Plenty has been said about Absolut Vodka. So much, writing about Sweden’s iconic drink in 2015 feels a bit like a chiché.
It’s a brand that marketers and consumers have celebrated openly for years. A global community of fans and collectors swoons at its feet. For them, Absolut has been a prodigious source of creative (and alcoholic) content for decades. Even people with no marketing knowledge could easily pick it out as a winning brand. It radiates social charisma.
Most of the accolades have centered on the brand’s legendary ABSOLUT [BLANK] ad campaign. Creative work like ABSOLUT TREASURE and ABSOLUT TRADITION first livened up magazine pages in the early 80s, and would go on to win awards and hearts for years to come.For fans of fine branding, the [BLANK] campaign borders on perfection – not least for the vitality and value it wrapped around Absolut’s remarkable bottle.
But even if Absolut’s story might be familiar, it’s worthwhile taking a step back and looking at the advertising as part of the bigger brand picture.
Absolut’s success was built on an incisive strategy and executed with unfailing dedication. These are pillars that should be an inspiration to anyone trying to create persuasive products today.
Al Reis’s Law of the Category is the one that says it’s better to create a product in a new category than attack existing categories.
For a perfect example of how the law of the category pays off, just look at Absolut’s position today as one of the world’s top 20 spirit brands.
“It started in 1979 with a simple and clear proposition: the purest vodka”
It started in 1979 with a simple and clear proposition expressed in a meaningful, memorable word – ABSOLUT: the purest vodka.
Product and packaging were engineered to drive home a clear, core message. Positioning and promotion were devised to make it as persuasive as possible.
Back in 1979, practically no-one outside Sweden imagined a Swedish vodka. But throughout most of its lifetime, Absolut Vodka has been a dominant presence in a category of its own invention.
The brand’s story contains so many great marketing lessons, but here’s what I see as the essential take-outs for marketers:
1. Make it easy
2. Celebrate strengths
3. Block out irrelevant noise
4. Radiate social charisma
5. Own mindshare
6. The target isn’t the market
7. Innovate relentlessly
Before unpacking these points, first a recap of how Absolut came into being.
Throughout the 1970s Lars Lindmark had grown restless. The president of Sweden’s spirits monopoly, V&S Vin & Sprit AB, could do nothing to squeeze more growth out of the local market, so Lindmark set his sights on the U.S.A., the largest vodka market in the western world.
Despite possessing a huge base of affluent drinkers, the U.S. market featured few stand-out vodka brands. Consumer attitudes placed little value on flavour and quality. At best, vodka was regarded as a cheap mixer. In the late 1970s, imported vodka’s market share stood at only 1%. The most eligible premium brands were considered ‘too Russian’ to reach further into the market.
But industry research showed consumers migrating towards white spirits. Drinkers stateside were increasingly coming to regard white spirits as healthier and more pure than brown spirits.
The V&S portfolio included a drink known as Absolut Rent Bränvin. First distilled in 1879, the spirit used choice local grain and a revolutionary ‘rectification’ process to arrive at an extremely high level of purity. Lindmark saw they had a product ready to cater for emerging American tastes, but it was raw. Getting U.S. consumers to embrace Swedish vodka would require a special effort.
“Lindmark and his team decided to double down on purity as the key selling point. They went looking for a product concept that could sell the message on sight”
Lindmark and his team decided to double down on purity as the key selling point and went looking for a product concept that could sell the message on sight.
Various positioning concepts were considered before advertising executive Gunnar Broman noticed an old medicine bottle in a Stockholm antiques shop.
The bottle was anonymous but had a special presence and authority. To render the medicine bottle concept into a market-ready premium spirit, V&S would have to break many of the established conventions of liquor packaging.
They opted for a clear-glass bottle with a short neck and rounded shoulders and did away with elaborate labeling. Clever blends of classic and modern typography added timeless character – bold blue lettering and free-flowing script underlining an unquestionably pure presence. A minimalist, brushed-silver cap took the place of cork. As a finishing touch, a medallion on the bottle’s shoulder sealed the brand’s 100-year pedigree, portraying Lars Olsson Smith, the creator of Absolut Rent Bränvin.
Legal issues prevented V&S from registering the trademark ‘Absolute Pure Vodka’, and so when the first shipment left for Boston on April 17, 1979, it traveled under the name Absolut Vodka.
The rest is, as they say, history. And here are the historical insights that remain as relevant today as ever:
1. Make It Easy
“The purest vodka” is a straight-forward, no-nonsense proposition designed to make Absolut stand apart from the rest of the field.
It could have been used as a way to say “a better vodka”, but Absolut went out of its way to avoid head-to-head comparisons with rival brands. Instead, the positioning strategy relied on the promise of an entirely new experience.
“Absolut’s positioning strategy relied on the promise of an entirely new experience”
In 1981, the [BLANK] campaign debuted. It was an idea that took shape – Archimedes style – in the bathtub of TBWA art director Geoff Hayes, and went on to become one of the longest-running campaigns in advertising history. The very first ad, ABSOLUT PERFECTION, established the meme of wrapping visual and verbal puns around simple, striking imagery. It provided a template that would last for decades: using visuals and wit to engage consumers, challenging them to solve tiny puzzles and see familiar concepts through fresh eyes.
The experience was designed to open minds. It was a simple new idea, expressed in an irresistibly simple way.
2. Celebrate Strengths
After V&S baked Absolut’s values into the product experience, they gave their U.S. partners tight guidelines for commercialising the brand. They specified that all advertising should centre around the bottle, it should not identify with any particular lifestyle, and it should have a timeless, yet contemporary, feel.
The [BLANK] campaign proved to be a more than adequate solution, providing endless options for associating positive values with the Absolut Vodka brand.
Whole new avenues for creative expression opened up when ABSOLUT STARDOM ran in 1984. It, and ads that followed like ABSOLUT PEAK, used abstract settings, cleverly subverting them into the bottle’s distinctive silhouette. The ‘Absolut Objects’ technique used simple metaphors to play up the bottle’s aesthetic and emotional strengths.
The fact that the new advertising was an instant hit showed how, in only a few short years, the bottle and name had already become instrumental to the telling of Absolut Vodka’s story.
3. Block Out Irrelevant Noise
When V&S originally pitched its product concept to American distributors, feedback was overwhelmingly negative.
The few prospects who were even willing to hear about Swedish vodka were especially harsh on the packaging design. Rather than emphasizing purity, they saw a bottle that would get lost on the shelf – or even magnify competitors’ labels.
Mercifully, Lindmark and his team ignored the feedback and stuck to their principles and research findings.
(As industry reactions to the iPhone launch showed, people often lack confidence to rank a concept when it differs radically from the competition).When Absolut’s marketing team decided to launch their campaign, they did no focus-group testing. Likewise, they didn’t rush to match their competitors’ advertising move-for-move. Much of the brand’s media buying gave preference to smaller publications with influential, niche readerships (and lower rate cards).
All along, Absolut knew they could generate a better return owning minds rather than eyeballs.
4. Radiate Social Charisma
Practically from the outset, the brand’s advertising portrayed Absolut Vodka as quirky and intelligent. It had a disarming charm – a bit like an eccentric friend.
From the honest design of the bottle through to the brand’s exploits in advertising, merchandising and event marketing, Absolut consistently found ways to project a strong personality that rival brands could not hope to equal.
In 1987, Absolut dedicated an ad to Los Angeles. ABSOLUT L.A. was another creative detour, but it was a smart way of addressing key target audiences and co-opting them into the brand.ABSOLUT MANHATTAN followed and the ABSOLUT CITIES series quickly became a way for the brand to poke fun and flatter regional audiences.
Soon people started demanding ads and bottles dedicated to their city, to show it had arrived.
All of these factors helped Absolut Vodka build and sustain a charismatic range of products with enormous social cachet.
5. Own Mindshare
Once its personality traits were established, Absolut was very effective at using positive associations to grow influence and claim mindshare. Nowhere was this more the case than in the art world.
Whenever brands align with specific causes or communities, it so often comes off as clunky and halfhearted. Absolut’s reaction to the breakout success of 1985’s ABSOLUT WARHOL ad was to harness the energy by intertwining its story with art. Rather than pompously sponsoring a museum, it orchestrated campaigns and events that showed itself as a brand by artists, for artists and of artists.Like Absolut Objects, Absolut Art expanded the brand’s repertoire and made countless new creative messages possible. Advertising, packaging and public relations all found massive new outlets for expression that other brands dared not imitate.
Absolut even had the audacity to dedicate a Themed Art series to Russia: ABSOLUT GLASNOST (1990) caught the mood of a world still thawing out from the Cold War.
Few marketers have managed to get a brand to occupy mindshare as naturally or effectively as Absolut Vodka, though Red Bull is surely a brand that took notes. Yet, over the years, it would go on to repeat this trick many times in new domains like fashion, film and media.
6. The Target Isn’t The Market
Absolut’s forays into the art world helped it make influential friends and earn the affections of high-society consumers and taste-makers.
For the rest of us, Absolut Art provided a portal onto a world that often seemed sealed-off. Absolut Art projects were joyous rather than snooty, encompassing advertising, packaging, special events and contests.
For Absolut, engaging with the art world was an indirect way of paying regular consumers a compliment. We felt smart deciphering their puzzles, finding out about new artists and discovering new ways to look at familiar things.Absolut’s own reputation for creativity gave it legitimacy as a curator. By using art in its story, Absolut Vodka reinforced its standing as a symbol of good taste.
Art helped Absolut to make us feel discerning, and more likely to view Absolut Vodka as a discerning choice.
7. Innovate Relentlessly
Relentless innovation is a dominant theme in the Absolut Vodka story (like all persuasive products). A classic example of Absolut’s commitment to innovation is how it used the medium, as well as the message to inflate its brand’s distinctiveness.
In advertising, the first example was ABSOLUT BRAVO, an early ad made for the Broadway publication, Playbill. Images of tossed roses and the “bravo” tagline made the ad instantly endearing to a readership obsessed with theatre.In the excellent ABSOLUT BOOK, TBWA’s Richard Lewis explains their philosophy: “We wanted to get into the reader’s head, wherever he or she was at that moment.”
“Absolut’s habit of using the context of the medium to its advantage is a useful lesson for marketers on tight budgets”
Absolut consistently excelled at playing to the strengths of the medium and audience.
The legendary ‘nude’ ABSOLUT CENTERFOLD ad that appeared in Playboy still shows astonishing bravado. ABSOLUT FIRST CLASS was a concept that provided readers with a sheet of art stamps. Some actually managed to creep into the US postal system. It was an approach that help cement perceptions of Absolut Vodka as a brand ‘outside the box’.
Absolut’s habit of using the context of the medium to its advantage is a useful lesson for marketers on tight budgets.
(I believe it’s what the inventors of the phrase ‘native advertising’ had in mind before it was hijacked into meaning ‘advertorial’).
Ads like BRAVO and other elaborate, so-called ‘spectaculars’ were highly effective at getting the wider world to talk about campaigns directed at a confined audience. It got to the point where other advertisers would complain to publications that Absolut was taking too much attention.
At retail level, the brand was no less innovative. Absolut’s influence on duty-free merchandising has been huge. The one body/1,000 faces principle made famous in print is also applied to retail packaging. An ever-expanding range of flavours helped introduce new experiences to the Absolut Vodka narrative, while softly moving the global vodka market into gourmet territory – a concept nobody dared imagine in 1979.
Meanwhile, frequent limited edition bottle releases are elaborate and highly sought-after. The ABSOLUT UNIQUE campaign in 2012 was a special project that used an algorithm to apply random digital art to a series of 4,000,000 stunning, individually numbered bottles (see gallery).
“Absolut discovered literally thousands of ways to reinforce and defend its own, self-defined category”
Since launching, Absolut’s adherence to its core principles has been tight but consistently imaginative and adventurous. The brand walked a narrow path, but one entirely of its own making. Along the way, literally thousands of ways were discovered to reinforce, extend and defend a wholly unique positioning.
In the 90s, “Act global! Think local!!” was a common catch-cry. Today, we obsess about creating value with community-specific content.
Not to be nostalgic, but it seems to me to be an art perfected more than 30 years ago by the clever minds behind Absolut Vodka.