Exclusive - Absolut premium: Level is new brand

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Absolut Spirits Co. won't borrow the famous name or bottle design of its flagship brand for the launch next year of Level, a super-premium vodka.

Level, expected to be introduced in mid-2004, will aim to win back share and cachet lost to the likes of Grey Goose, Ketel One and Belvedere.

"It will be Level, not Absolut Level," confirmed an Absolut spokesman. He wouldn't discuss the brand's selling price but said it would be comparable to others in the super-premium category.

Giving the brand a separate name allows it to create its own brand image without being weighed down by Absolut's strong positioning, and also protects the flagship brand from being damaged if the premium offering isn't a success.

`unique' design

Sporting a sleek bottle with its own "unique" graphic design, the upscale Swedish spirit was presented to Absolut's sales force at a recent meeting in Chicago. London-based brand identity specialist Pearlfisher, which created the original Absolut bottle, also created the Level bottle.

While marketing planning is still in its infancy, the Absolut spokesman said Level "will make an immediate impact into the marketplace." Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, will handle the launch.

The No. 3 liquor brand and leading imported vodka with a 56% share, Absolut redefined luxury vodkas with its artsy campaigns and cool image. But after Millennium Imports' Belvedere created the super-premium segment as a way of standing out in the crowded category, others followed and Absolut began to seem less au courant.

Owned by V&S Vin & Sprit brand, Absolut Spirits Co. launched flavor extensions and new ads, but higher-end competitors continue to chip away at Absolut's share. In June, 2001, V&S signed a joint distribution deal with Fortune Brands' Jim Beam Brands to create its Future Brands sales organization.

Absolut lost share for the first time in 2002 when it captured 11.7% of the vodka market, down from 12.2% in 2000, according to Impact. Meanwhile, Grey Goose, distributed by Sidney Frank Imports, and Belvedere both saw their share double as hipsters downed fancy cocktails.

Jim Goodwin, Absolut VP-marketing, resigned last month. Tim Murphy, Absolut's brand director, added duties that had been handled by Mr. Goodwin.

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