When the bottle campaign was introduced in 1979 with the now-legendary "Absolut Perfection" print ad, the brand was dripping with cachet. But today, thanks to the emergence of dozens if not hundreds of pricier (sometimes it seems there's an arms race of overcharging in the category), glitzier vodkas led by Bacardi's fast-growing Grey Goose, Absolut has instead become the Budweiser of vodkas: a midshelf brand whose overwhelming volume has made it ubiquitous.
Tim Murphy, VP-marketing for the Absolut Spirits Co. and the man behind the new campaign, put it this way: "When people think of vodka in the generic sense, they think of Absolut in a specific sense. One bartender told me that 'Absolut is vodka before the plastic surgery,' and that's the authenticity we're trying to convey."
Absolut had to try something. "With all the superpremiums, perfection as a proposition became a little bit unattainable," said Jamie Gallo, managing director of TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, which has handled the brand since its inception.
That challenge manifested itself in market-share losses for Absolut, now the world's No. 2 vodka brand. It's lost considerable market share to Grey Goose, Ketel One, Belvedere and other upstart luxury brands during this decade, when vodkas in general have enjoyed unprecedented growth.
According to the spirits trade magazine Impact, Absolut's 4.9% annual growth rate between 2000 and 2005 was the slowest among the seven vodka brands that ranked in the top 60 overall spirit brands, including the No. 1 spirits brand, Diageo's Smirnoff (6.9%). And growth within the U.S. -- which accounts for about 50% of the brand's volume -- has been even more sluggish.
"They saw the superpremiums coming from a mile away, but they didn't do anything about it," said one beverage-marketing executive who asked not to be identified due to a relationship with Absolut. "The new campaign suggests they're finally waking up and smelling the vodka."
Ideal, if not perfect
The effort, titled "In an Absolut World," features scenes from a world where everything is as ideal as Absolut vodka allegedly is. Ads portray pregnant men and their beaming female spouses, Times Square as a fine-art gallery, and protesters and police settling differences with pillow fights.
All of this is intended to show Absolut as the ideal vodka in a landscape crowded with luxury upstarts.
So what's the big difference between "ideal" and the admittedly out-of-date perfection claims? Mr. Murphy thinks it's a better fit. "Our specific approach is to ask, 'What if everything were approached the same way we approached Absolut Vodka?' It's a more ideal, desirable view for all."
Ignoring emerging media
The superpremium-vodka craze isn't the only change that came during the bottle campaign's 25-plus-year run: Cable TV emerged as a major advertising medium for spirits, as did the internet, and Absolut has largely avoided both channels throughout its history.
Not anymore. Whereas print advertising used to occupy the brand's entire budget, it will get only 25% of Absolut's media spending going forward, with digital, outdoor and TV each getting between 20% and 30% of the spending pie as well. Absolut's media spending has fluctuated between $18 million and $38 million annually during the past five years, according to TNS Media Intelligence, but the campaign is expected to lead to heftier outlays.
Adding to the aura of change surrounding the brand is the prospect of a sale. While Absolut is not formally on the block, the Swedish government has indicated a desire to sell state-owned assets, including Absolut's parent, Vin & Spirit. Bacardi has reportedly expressed interest, and Beam Global Wine & Spirits -- which manages Absolut in the U.S. through a joint venture -- is also widely expected to pursue the brand. Ideally, that is.