Breaking With Bottle Fires Up Absolut Sales

Vodka Maker Resurges as a Symbol for Luxury After Killing Off Trademark Ads

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CHICAGO ( -- What happens when you ditch a legendary, iconic and recognized ad strategy synonymous with your brand for decades?

Absolut resurgence.

After trading in its print-based campaign tied to the shape of its bottle for a global multimedia approach last year themed, "It's an Absolut world," the Swedish vodka brand saw its sales spike.
Luxor-y life: An Absolut ad on the Luxor hotel's pyramid greeted Vegas tourists.
Luxor-y life: An Absolut ad on the Luxor hotel's pyramid greeted Vegas tourists.
According to the company, global case shipments jumped 9%, and Absolut gained market share in the crowded and increasingly competitive U.S. market -- no easy feat for a mature brand trying to fend off an ever-expanding pool of upstarts.

Absolut, the No. 2 U.S. vodka brand, trailing only Smirnoff, also broke the 5 million case mark last year for the first time -- a status shared with only Bacardi, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Jack Daniels in the spirits space.

"We took a really different approach and it paid tremendous dividends," said Ian Crystal, Absolut's brand director. "A lot of our key numbers had been flat or declining, and they're all going up now."

Even pricier competition
Absolut's sluggishness was partially a result of an ad campaign that had fallen out of step with its product's place in the market, executives said after they made the campaign switch last spring.

When Absolut entered the U.S. market in 1979, it essentially created the superpremium vodka category, and its ads -- which merged its iconic bottle with equally iconic art-world figures -- were ideal for the brand's upmarket image.

But the past decade or so has seen an explosion of far-pricier brands such as Grey Goose, Belvedere, Chopin and others that have essentially relegated Absolut to midshelf status.

Even so, the marketer was reluctant to end one of the most celebrated campaigns in the history of alcohol marketing, no matter how irrelevant it had become. "We almost looked at [change] as heretical," said Rob Smiley, creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, Absolut's longtime creative agency. "But consumers really needed to see something fresh."

So last spring, Absolut gave in. Spots on cable TV -- the brand's first major push into the medium -- depicted police fending off pillow-wielding rioters in an "Absolut World." Print ads showed Times Square filled with priceless artwork and pregnant men.

'An Absolut World'
Tourists driving toward the Las Vegas strip last fall saw the Luxor casino's pyramid wrapped with a message: "Welcome to Vegas. You are now in an Absolut World." The "In an Absolut World" theme also ran worldwide: Visitors to Germany found airport taxi lines filled with Porsches, as well as an ATM that dispensed free money.

WE WISH: For some New Yorkers, the prospect of a 2nd Avenue subway is almost as exciting as free money.

TBWA Managing Director Jamie Gallo said the campaign attempted to steer Absolut clear of what he called the "rational benefits" being claimed by so many upstarts in the category, many of whom boast the best taste or the smoothest feel. Many of these claims contradict each other, and a few have even wound up in lawsuits. "We know people don't purchase as much on rational benefits as on emotional benefits," he said.

Absolut's Mr. Crystal wouldn't divulge details about 2008 plans, but he said the campaign's executions would get "bigger and bolder."

Full-year measured-media numbers were not available, but Absolut spent $16.3 million during the first nine months of 2007, compared with $26 million during all of 2006. The campaign did not launch until May, however, and the fourth quarter is typically the heaviest period for spirits advertisers eager to push their bottles on gift seekers.

Veteran spirits-industry consultant Arthur Shapiro, a former Seagram executive, said Absolut has succeeded in reconnecting with consumers who may have dabbled in upstart brands. "America has had this love affair with high-priced vodka for a few years, but Absolut is the brand a lot of people grew up on," he said. "Those consumers are coming back to their senses."
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