Former Heineken Marketer: Flavored-Vodka Bubble Will Burst

Purity Vodka CEO Andy Glaser Takes Ad Battle to Mass Brands

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Produced in small batches at a 13th Century castle in Sweden, Purity Vodka has won plenty of awards, but barely any awareness outside of the posh hotels and restaurants where it is sold in the U.S.

Andy Glaser

Andy Glaser wants to change that . Mr. Glaser, whose marketing experience includes stints at Moet Hennessy and Heineken USA, took over as CEO of the vodka company last year with the goal of growing Purity by seizing on the rising interest in top quality craft spirits. Step one is a new campaign that takes dead aim at one of the biggest players in premium vodka, Grey Goose.

At first glance the campaign, which includes print and digital ads, looks like an endorsement: "Like cranberry juice in your vodka? May we recommend Grey Goose," reads the bold text. But the contrast comes in the fine print, where the brand seeks to separate itself from the torrent of flavored vodkas hitting the market. "We believe the smooth yet full-bodied taste of Purity Vodka is best enjoyed straight up or on the rocks," goes the rest of the ad.

Plain vodka? Straight? Those seems like almost foreign concepts in an age where big brands seem to be unleashing new exotic vodka flavors on an almost weekly basis, from "fresh cut grass" to "sour apple sass." And the appetite for such creations seems to only be growing. Flavored vodka accounts for more than 20% of the $2.8 billion U.S. vodka market, with sales up almost five share points from two years ago, according to Nielsen. "New trends with indulgent flavors are driving the flavored vodka growth," said Danny Brager, Nielsen VP-group client director for alcohol.

Purity Vodka
Purity Vodka

Mr. Glaser sees another trend on the horizon. "I think the bubble is going to burst " on flavored vodkas, he said. "There is a credibility factor," he added. "Some of these flavors now, they are sweet, they are sugary, they have PB&J flavored vodkas or cotton-candy-flavored vodkas." Those styles, he said, won't align with the "upward, aspirational trend" that will take over as the economy improves.

Purity is also counting on rising interest in smaller, so-called "craft" spirits brands -- a trend that is beginning to take hold following the success of the craft beer movement. Just like successful craft beers, Purity's marketing is all about the story behind the product, rather than image-based advertising that is typically associated with liquor branding.

"There just seems to be this shift in interest away from the ... large mainstream brands and into things that are quirky and different," said Mr. Glaser, who spent some 20 years at large global drinks companies, including launching Heineken Light in the U.S. in 2006. "There's just this curiosity and intrigue that 's there." Consumers, he said, want brands that "they haven't seen before, that are well made, and offer them a different type of value."

Of course, image still sells. Consider that one of the fastest-growing premium vodkas is Diageo's Ciroc, whose marketing relies almost solely on the personality of hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs.

Purity's biggest celebrity is Master Blender Thomas Kuuttanen, who spent more than a decade crafting the recipe for the vodka, whose ingredients include winter wheat, malted barley and natural spring water. Purity, which uses a still made from copper and gold, is made at Ellinge Castle in the south of Sweden, where it is distilled 34 times to produce the "perfect cut" of "full-bodied" vodka that is not filtered like a lot of other brands.

The labor-intensive process means Purity is pricey -- about $40 a bottle. As such, the brand targets the highest of high-end markets, with U.S. distribution limited to exclusive venues such as the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills and the Le Bernardin seafood restaurant in New York. The campaign, by Iris Worldwide, will run in print and digital properties such as Playboy, The Wall Street Journal and Food Gawker.

Purity is sold in more than 25 countries. The U.S. is the brand's biggest market, where it is now available in 10 states, including key markets of Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Still, the brand is taking a slow and steady growth approach. It entered six new states last year, but is targeting only two new states for 2013: Florida and either New Jersey or Massachusetts.

"We're not rushing to get national distribution," Mr. Glaser said. "It's better that we develop in the right cities the right way."

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