In 1977 Lars Lindmark, then CEO of Sweden's Wine & Spirits Corp., decided that the state-owned liquor monopoly should make a bid for the export market. Sweden at that time was probably the least likely place in the world for the birth of what would become one of top-selling liquor brands in the U.S. The Swedish liquor market was strictly regulated, and the country's parliament?as well as the company's board of directors?leaned toward abstinence and were opposed to all attempts to commercialize the operation.
Wine & Spirits lacked experience in marketing and advertising and did not have any products positioned for the international market. That deficiency turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as Mr. Lindmark found it necessary to hire several consultants, the most important being Gunnar Broman, a well-known adman in Stockholm. Mr. Broman began with nothing?no brand name, no package, not even a vodka.
"Absolute Pure Vodka"
At a meeting in New York with the top creative team from ad agency N.W. Ayer ABH International, Mr. Broman presented five different concepts for a Swedish vodka. In what would later become a familiar pattern, the suggestion that met with the most extreme reaction?both positive and negative?was "Absolute Pure Vodka." Mr. Broman had borrowed this name from an inexpensive Swedish vodka favored by the less affluent classes and alcoholics. The provocatively simple bottle design, inspired by a 19th-century apothecary bottle, bore the brand name as well as a substantial block of copy, explaining the origins of the product, applied directly to the clear glass.
The basic ideas were there from the start: an uncompromising emphasis on purity in name as well as in packaging and a breakaway design that signaled a willingness to challenge the prevalent Russian vodka heritage in the quickly growing vodka market. (Vodka at the time was typically packaged in tall bottles with large crimson labels, an abundance of crests and Russian-sounding names.) It is ironic that a product that came to be praised for its design met with such strong initial opposition from art directors, liquor executives and focus groups. It explains the huge difficulties Messrs. Lindmark and Broman had to overcome before the product could find an importer.
An often repeated criticism at Ayer and elsewhere was that the highly unusual bottle, having no label and hardly any color, would be virtually impossible to see on liquor store shelves or in front of a bar mirror. Years after the launch, Wine & Spirits and its U.S. agency were still working on various options to solve the problem.
Probably the most ardent advocate of the original bottle design was Hans Brindfors, the art director who created the first glass bottle with the brand name and bottle copy applied to the exterior in silver. Ayer CEO Jerry Siano got the credit for being the first to recognize the full potential of the name "Absolut." Mostly for legal reasons, but encouraged by Mr. Siano, the Swedes decided to change the name, dropping the "e" from "Absolute" as well as the "Pure," which was seen as redundant. The brand thus became "Absolut (Country of Sweden) Vodka." It is, of course, known by the shorter "Absolut vodka."
Wine & Spirits was unable to find an importer, despite courting major U.S. producers, importers and agents. Finally, Mr. Broman found a small agent, Carillon Importers, mostly known for marketing the French liqueur Grand Marnier. The Absolut account moved from Ayer to Carillon's agency, Martin Landey, Arlow Advertising, New York, which immediately demanded that major changes be made to the bottle design. After many creative clashes, Mr. Broman's partner, creative director Lars Borje Carlsson, finished the design: the name "Absolut vodka" in large clear blue letters and the long copy on the bottle by Mr. Broman in an elegant, black hand-drawn script (the original type was actually borrowed from a Cadillac Seville ad).
Thanks to Mr. Landey's gentle prodding, Carillon CEO Al Singer finally decided to take on the Swedish vodka and entered a 50-50 partnership deal with Wine & Spirits. Absolut was launched at the liquor trade convention in New Orleans in the spring of 1979. By 1990, Carillon had become one of the most profitable corporations per employee in the U.S.
In the first ads, Martin Landey, Arlow creative director Arnold Arlow did his best to hide the product; he also let his copywriter pen a new and different presentation than the one found on the bottle. Ironically, Mr. Arlow would reappear at Absolut's next agency to manage the creative side of the campaign for more than 10 years in collaboration with Peter Lubalin.
Shortly after the launch, Martin Landey, Arlow had to give up the Carillon account in connection with a merger. When pitching the account, the small, ambitious TBWA, led by Bill Tragos, suggested a whimsical two-word campaign: "Absolut [Something]," with the ads showing the strange bottle in a visual pun.
By most accounts, the first idea was "Absolut perfection," in which the bottle was depicted with a halo. It was presented at the very first meeting between agency and client, and the same ad was still running in parts of the world 20 years later. The originators of the campaign were two young advertising men, Geoff Hayes (originally from South Africa) and Graham Turner (a U.K. native), recently hired by the agency's creative director, advertising legend Carole Anne Fine. The basic idea for the campaign could probably be characterized as every client's dream: The product is always the hero?and often the only thing shown in the ad?while the headline consists solely of two words, one being the brand name. Absolut sold well from the start, even before the TBWA ad campaign was up and running and long before the ads had been recognized in the advertising community as anything out of the ordinary.
A defining moment came when Michel Roux was unexpectedly promoted to the top position at Carillon, replacing Mr. Singer. Mr. Roux quickly propelled Absolut to the No. 1 spot among imported vodkas in 1985. Mr. Roux was a staunch believer in two tenets of marketing. First, never price-promote your brand (i.e., reduce price to stimulate sales). Second, funnel the quickly growing profits back into marketing-a strategy that suited the worried Swedes well, as they were anxious not to disclose anything of the huge and politically sensitive profits on their home turf. The advertising budget for Absolut in 1980 was $750,000; in 2000, it reached $33 million, making it the most heavily advertised liquor brand in the world.
In 1985, the celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol offered to paint the bottle and display it as an ad in Interview. In spite of much hesitation at TBWA and Wine & Spirits, Roux decided to go ahead with "Absolut Warhol." This effort would mark the beginning of Absolut's long, spectacular, often entertaining and occasionally pompous series of diversions into the realm of art, fashion, geography, design, furniture, cartoons and Christmas greetings. Whether brilliant or contrived, the campaign masterminded by Mr. Roux always served to confirm the enormous strength in the word "Absolut." The name could evidently be put in front of anything or anyone, ostensibly promoting cities, countries, artists and celebrities?but always promoting the brand first and foremost.
In 1994, Wine & Spirits dropped Carillon in favor of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons. Since that time, Absolut has never recaptured the growth of the 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, by the late 1990s Absolut was by far the best-selling import vodka in the U.S. and the second-best-selling vodka after Smirnoff; by 2001 it was the No. 3 international premium spirits brand. After a little more than 20 years in the market, Absolut was selling more than 65 million liters per year, primarily in the U.S.
Over the years the Absolut campaign has won most U.S. advertising awards and is considered by many in the industry to be among the best print campaigns ever created. Absolut was voted into the Marketing Hall of Fame in 1995 at the same time as an older but equally famous beverage, Coca-Cola. In 2000, the Absolut brand alone, distribution rights excluded, was estimated to be worth more than $3 billion.