A Swedish Vodka in New York – How Absolut conquered America

When Absolut was introduced in the USA in 1979, the argument against this was obvious: “Who would buy a Swedish vodka?”

So, how did a Swedish product that wasn’t new or revolutionary become number one in the city that never sleeps?

How did Absolut Vodka beat its competitors in a foreign country, despite having to penetrate an already saturated market and having a product with no recognisable advantages over competitors?

Absolut Vodka weren’t the first or last business to struggle with this problem. Quite often, a business faces a situation where their product is good, but it’s not ‘different’ enough to provide a clear point of distinction, to deliver a convincing “unique selling point”. Even when their product does have an advantage over competitors (such as lower price, high quality or better value), entrepreneurs find – with frustration – that getting people to change their buying behaviour – to switch from other businesses to their own – can get incredibly tough.

But branding is not just about what you have to offer, it’s about what you do and say. In this article, we take a look at how Absolut Vodka convinced customers to give it a try (and then, their loyalty), not because it necessarily offered a distinctly better product, but by focusing on everything else that matters to customers.

Some facts about Absolut Vodka:

  • Absolut is a Swedish brand, created in 1879.
  • Absolut is the third largest brand of alcoholic spirits in the world after Bacardi and Smirnoff, and is marketed in 126 countries. The largest export market is the United States, where more than 40% of the imported vodka in the United States is Absolut.
  • In 2002 Forbes Magazine ranked Absolut the world’s number one luxury brand.

A Swedish product in New York

When Absolut was introduced in the USA in 1979, the argument against this was obvious: “Who would buy a Swedish vodka?”

Carillon Importers Ltd., in New York saw good reason: some people don’t want to follow the crowd. Some people appreciate the experience more than others. Absolut Vodka entered a long-term partnership with photographer Steven Bronstein to produce visually rich print adverts, the brand also invested in art directors and copywriters to help tailor its every ad to a different audience.

By 1985, Absolut was number one among imported vodkas in the USA. The country that consumes 60% of the Western world’s vodka was convinced.

It is a fact that Absolut Vodka had massive amounts of capital to back up its big marketing budget. But the lesson here is not to be rich, the lesson is to prioritise. Your goal is to attract attention, so don’t ignore the value of an alluring and visually stimulating advert, product, website or shopfront, especially before investing money in sales executives. Form is as important as function.

Michel Roux hires Andy Warhol

In 1985 Michel Roux, President of Carillon Importers in charge of the American distribution, commissioned Andy Warhol to paint a picture of the Absolut bottle. Warhol, who was enthralled by the artfulness of the bottle, was happy to oblige. He was soon followed by Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and other well-known artists.

Beyond this, Absolut has also sponsored some of the world’s most famous designers to make fashion pieces for Absolut, including Tom Ford and Jean-Paul Gaultier. By doing this, Absolut was able to introduce its products to people who follow the talents it partnered with, allowing itself to increase its brand reach by empowering people the community cares about.

This goes on to show that who you collaborate with is just as important as who you’re competing against. Donating a one-time sum of money does not make a partnership, brands need to create long-term relationships with the talents, event organisers and media houses they choose to work.

Absolut Vodka Drags Up

In 2011, Absolut Vodka became the official sponsor of Rupaul’s Drag Race, an American competition which sees Drag Queens compete in a variety of challenges that test various skills relevant to entertainment, from design to acting to comedy. Back when Absolut Vodka began its sponsorship, Rupaul’s Drag Race was a small niche show with a small audience; today, the TV show has become internationally famous and won multiple awards.

Absolut Vodka no longer sponsors the show, but its presence in the tv show’s early days allowed it to become a permanent fixture in the LGBTQIA+ community both in the US and abroad.

This is more food for thought. Often the first priority of companies when they approach digital agencies is to reach as many people as possible. But when you try to speak to everyone, you end up speaking to no one. It’s better to focus on one community – one group of people – at a time. Likewise, it seems reasonable to try collaborating with the biggest influencer in a community, but that is going to cost you, in all likelihood, every other business will be vying for that same person. Don’t underestimate the potential future value of new, small talents, projects and voices.

The Absolut advertising and marketing campaign has won over 350 awards over the years. Likewise, tens of thousands of people around the world collect Absolut ads just cause they look great.

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