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V & S Vin & Sprit AB

V & S Vin & Sprit AB

ABSOLUT DIRECTOR CAMPAIGN
ABSOLUT PRINT CAMPAIGN

Box 47319
Stockholm, SE 117 97
Sweden
Telephone: 46 8 7447000
Web site: www.vinsprit.se

ABSOLUT DIRECTOR CAMPAIGN

OVERVIEW

Absolut Vodka, owned by the Swedish government monopoly V & S Vin & Sprit AB, was a brand built entirely on image. The famous Absolut print campaign, created by ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day and launched in 1981, featured endless permutations of a single formula: an image of the iconic bottle along with minimal copy pairing the brand name with a single proper or common noun. By its 20th year the print campaign could claim not only to have almost single-handedly led Absolut from obscurity to monumental success but also to have engineered a distinct Absolut personality, one of the most recognizable consumer-product images in the world. Often described as witty, stylish, smart, and trendsetting, the Absolut brand was, then, a natural candidate to experiment with the implementation of new technologies on its consumer website. Having already established a commitment to interactivity on its website, Absolut in 2001 unveiled "Absolut Director," an application that allowed online visitors to make their own short films.

"Absolut Director" provided more than 35 clips from an old Japanese monster movie, which users could rearrange as they pleased, while writing their own dialogue and building a soundtrack from a range of speaking voices and musical accompaniment. The final products created ranged in length from 30 seconds to four minutes, and the site encouraged the amateur filmmakers to E-mail a link allowing friends to view their handiwork, thereby increasing the number of visitors to "Absolut Director." A print ad carrying the same tagline likewise raised awareness of the site in an attempt to generate more online visits.

Linking such online promotions to actual sales was extremely difficult, and industry observers were split on the question of whether or not platforms like "Absolut Director" did any useful branding work. Absolut continued to experiment with interactive online marketing, however. Though the brand continued to be the top imported vodka in America, its sales remained flat amid increasing competition from higher-priced brands and an overall vodka-industry boom.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Owned by V & S Vin & Sprit AB, which was backed by the Swedish government, Absolut Vodka nominally traced its history to 1879, when a brand of vodka carrying the Absolut name was first brewed near Ahus in southern Sweden. That original brand ultimately dropped the Absolut from its name, and in the late 1970s an entrepreneur named Gunnar Broman decided to use the name, while claiming the older product's historical and geographical roots, for a new brand of vodka he planned on exporting from Sweden to America. Absolut Vodka did not yet exist as a product—there was no formula for the beverage, nor was there any distribution network in place—when Broman arrived in New York with prototypes of the distinctive bottle that would ultimately define the brand, trying to enlist an advertising agency to his cause. After a slow start following the product's 1979 launch, Absolut was dropped by its first ad agency, but then the account moved to TBWA\Chiat\Day, which built the Absolut brand virtually from scratch.

The Absolut print campaign's multiple-decade run began in 1981. It featured hundreds of variations on the same format: an image in the shape of the product's bottle ran with a two-word tag line that always began with "Absolut." The campaign's first execution, tagged "Absolut Perfection," featured a simple image of the bottle topped by a halo. Absolut-bottle-shaped images designed by famous artists, beginning with Andy Warhol in 1985, lent the brand a cutting-edge reputation, as did a focus on individuals from the world of high fashion, but the concept was infinitely mutable. It was applied, for example, to cities, countries, writers, photographers, holidays, seasons, topographical features, states of mind, and abstract concepts. Each twist on the format was meant to represent an interpretation of the world from an "Absolut perspective," and together the different executions amounted to a brand personality often described as elegant, hip, sophisticated, creative, and intelligent. In 1999 Advertising Age ranked the still-running Absolut campaign in the top 10 twentieth-century advertising campaigns.

With the rise of the Internet, distilled-spirits brands in particular saw a new avenue for marketing. Largely locked out of the image-building possibilities offered by television advertising, Absolut and other liquor brands established an early and often elaborate cyberspace presence, despite the fact that they could not sell their products online. Absolut first experimented with a website catering to early users of the Internet in 1996. In October 2000 the brand launched its well-regarded Absolut.com site, meant to appeal to the entire range of the Absolut target market. Among the initial features offered to visitors to www.Absolut.com was an interactive component called "Absolut DJ," which allowed Web surfers to mix dance songs and samples into new musical concoctions of their own.

TARGET MARKET

Though Absolut, in its print campaign, had long been able to tailor individual executions of its bottle concept to specific subsets of its target market, its branded online content was intended for the entire range of young people in its target group: 21- to 40-year-old drinkers of premium-priced liquors who were, according to V & S, "youthful in mind, active, outgoing, sociable, somewhat trend-conscious and fashionable."

"Absolut Director," moreover, built on the brand's 20-year heritage of creativity, as established in its print campaign. Having consistently used figures from the art and fashion worlds to communicate with those who appreciated creativity, Absolut was a natural fit for the marketing profile that an interactive movie-making platform offered. By allowing members of its target market to exercise their own creativity, the brand underscored its well-established commitment to creativity. In showing its adeptness with new technologies well in advance of most consumer products, Absolut likewise reaffirmed its reputation for cutting-edge sophistication.

COMPETITION

Though Absolut was America's top imported vodka, its sales fell well short of those of the total vodka-market leader, the more affordable domestic brand Smirnoff. Absolut, which was categorized as a premium vodka, was likewise being threatened, during this time, by a range of higher-priced imports, so-called super-premium competitors, such as Grey Goose and Belvedere. Vodka was the leading growth category among spirits in the U.S. during the early years of the new millennium, with much of that growth attributable to the explosive market gains made by these super-premium brands.

ABSOLUT ONLINE

Though its print campaign was one of the longest running in advertising history, Absolut was hardly complacent when it came to investigating new ways of communicating with consumers. Absolut had been exploring ways to make creative use of its website since the early days of the Internet. In 1996, as competitors launched websites for general audiences, Absolut understood that its online audience at that time must necessarily be a technology-savvy group seeking out cutting-edge Web experiences. Early versions of the site therefore focused on the art and design elements behind the long-running print campaign. Then, as the Internet became populated by a broader range of the Absolut target market, the brand adapted its website accordingly. The result was a site that many pointed to as one of the alcohol industry's best, balancing creativity and sophistication with accessibility, all aimed at reinforcing the clear product image for which the brand was renowned.

Smirnoff, whose sales had declined significantly from a 1990 peak, was attempting to increase awareness of the brand through various channels in the early 2000s. The brand became the first liquor to be advertised on network TV when, in 2001, NBC announced that it was rescinding the voluntary ban on hard alcohol ads that the three major networks had observed since the 1950s. In keeping with a list of 19 restrictions imposed by NBC, Smirnoff began running branded public-service spots warning against drunk driving, before NBC reversed itself, a few months later, under pressure from advocacy groups. But the Smirnoff name was, at the same time, reaching consumers via network and cable television in another way. Its British parent company, Diageo, had recently unveiled an entry in the category of "malternatives"—sweet, lightly carbonated beverages brewed like beer and thus not subject to the marketing restrictions imposed on hard liquor—under the Smirnoff name. Smirnoff Ice, as this product was called, became the top seller in a category whose target market largely consisted of entry-age drinkers. Industry observers noted that Smirnoff vodka, which otherwise had been unsuccessful in appealing to young people, benefited from its sibling brand's popularity and comparatively unrestricted ability to advertise on television. Smirnoff vodka's sales volume rose 25 percent between 2000 and 2003.

Super-premium vodka brands, meanwhile, began cutting into Absolut's market share from above, challenging its long-established near-monopoly among stylish high-end vodka drinkers. Brands such as Grey Goose and Belvedere, which cost approximately $30, compared with Absolut's $20 per bottle, emphasized such product attributes as the types of grain and distillation processes used to manufacture their vodkas. Grey Goose, the leading super-premium brand, found particular success in touting taste-test results supposedly indicating that it was the "World's best tasting vodka." In building its brand, Absolut had typically eschewed any reference to the product itself, focusing almost exclusively on image and style as embodied by its iconic bottle. As specialty-cocktail drinkers in hip urban nightclubs began claiming they could taste the difference between Grey Goose and Absolut—even when the seasoned bartenders who made those cocktails, as Forbes reported, could not—Absolut began running print ads emphasizing the grain and water from which its vodka was made. Grey Goose sales grew by 410 percent between 2000 and 2004.

MARKETING STRATEGY

"Absolut Director" was created by the New York-based branding and entertainment studio Submarine, together with agency of record TBWA\Chiat\Day, the interactive design and direction firm Zendo Studios, and system architects Pillar Applications. The website, part of the larger Absolut.com home page, was meant to support the brand's wider marketing profile as maintained in the vaunted Absolut print campaign, while also raising awareness of the product's online presence. Although Absolut marketing executives acknowledged the difficulty of linking sales figures to branded content on a product's Internet home page, they believed that a dynamic online presence helped to establish or augment the consumer-to-brand relationship. Absolut's strategy for initiating this process hinged on the inclusion of interactive features on its website. "Absolut Director," like its online predecessor "Absolut DJ," maximized website visitors' interaction with the brand.

The application allowed visitors to select and arrange to their own liking more than 35 snippets of a 1960s Japanese science-fiction film, which they could then enhance with their own dialogue, speaking voices of their choice, and a variety of music options. This format was, according to Submarine's creative team, inspired by the Woody Allen movie What's Up Tiger Lily, which paired a preexisting Japanese spy movie with a new, tongue-in-cheek script. The finalized "Absolut Director" movies varied from 30 seconds and four minutes in length, and the creators were given the option of inviting family and friends to watch their movies. Such invitations, delivered in E-mail messages providing a Web link, drove further traffic to the "Absolut Director" site. Participants also had the option of entering their movies as "must see" picks to be showcased, if chosen, in a prominent position on the site.

Absolut enlisted high-profile feature-film directors to create the first movies using the "Absolut Director" application, thus stoking interest in the site while providing examples for the creative utilization of the supplied materials. Spike Lee was the first director to make a movie using the "Absolut Director" materials, and his effort was followed by films from directors Mary Harron, Chris Smith, John C. Walsh, and Mary Gillen. Simultaneously, TBWA\Chiat\Day crafted an "Absolut Director" ad following the classic print campaign format. It ran in magazines as a means of publicizing the site.

A Submarine-developed technology called H.I.L.D.E. (Highly Interactive Language-Enabled Director Experiment) was at the center of the "Absolut Director" experience. H.I.L.D.E. appeared as a female on-screen icon who guided website visitors through the process of making their movies. The technology also enabled the translation of typed dialogue into a voice file so that the onscreen actors actually spoke the words devised by movie makers.

OUTCOME

Industry analysts were divided on the efficacy of the branding accomplished via platforms such as "Absolut Director." Some argued that consumers visited product websites in search of practical information and promotional offers, not to interact with the brand. Supporters of the marketing approach, by contrast, believed that interactive online sites encouraged intimacy with the essence of a brand, which was the ultimate goal of conventional advertising and supposedly a primary driver of consumer choice. The difficulty of correlating Web visits to sales meant that no clear answer to the debate was likely to emerge.

Absolut continued to take a clear position on such issues, however. The brand remained committed to an interactive online presence and followed up "Absolut Director" with its first online campaign beyond its own homepage. The ads, placed on such websites as Yahoo!, E! Online, and CBS Marketwatch, featured the trademark format of a bottle and a two-word tagline from the print campaign, but they allowed Web visitors to rearrange the image, text, and other elements. As they did so, the elements of the ad underwent intriguing graphic and textual transformations. Absolut.com, moreover, remained one of the alcohol industry's most elaborate interactive websites.

Absolut's struggle to maintain its market share in the face of vigorous growth among super-premium vodkas was further complicated when its U.S. distributor, Seagram, divested itself of its alcohol holdings as part of a merger with French conglogmerate Vivendi. Though V&S eventually partnered with Jim Beam Brands for the U.S. distribution of Absolut, the shakeup was partly blamed for what became an extended period of lackluster sales. Between 2000 and 2004 Absolut sales remained flat at about 4.5 million cases per year, whereas total vodka sales in the United States increased by 17 percent during the same period.

FURTHER READING

Branch, Shelly. "Absolut's Latest Ad Leaves Bottle Behind." Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2001.

Chura, Hillary. "Drinking In the Internet." Advertising Age, September 3, 2001.

Cocoran, Ian. "Absolut Brilliance." Brandchannel.com, March 11, 2002. Available from 〈http://www.brandchannel.com/features_profile.asp?pr_id=60〉

Hein, Kenneth. "Grey Goose Builds Nest with Drinks, Dollars." Brandweek, March 11, 2002.

Kaplan, David. "NBC Falls off the Wagon." Adweek, December 17, 2001.

Korolishin, Jennifer. "Click to Quench." Beverage Industry, September 2004.

Lewis, Richard. Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story. Boston: Journey Editions, 1996.

Mack, Ann M. "Absolut Launches Net Campaign." Adweek, August 6, 2001.

Miller, Matthew. "Absolut Chaos." Forbes, December 13, 2004.

Saunders, Christopher. "Absolut Unveils 'Director' Web Promotion." ClickZ News, May 22, 2001. Available from 〈www.clickz.com/news/article.php/771201〉

                                              Mark Lane

ABSOLUT PRINT CAMPAIGN

OVERVIEW

In 1981 Carillon Importers released an advertising campaign to establish an identity for Absolut Vodka, a premium vodka made in Sweden and owned by that country's government-backed monopoly V&S Vin & Sprit. At the time Absolut was unknown in the United States, and Americans were not accustomed to paying a premium for vodka. Experts in the distilled-spirits market predicted a quick death for the higher-priced product. But largely because of Absolut's innovative and tremendously popular print ad campaign, Absolut rapidly became the best-selling imported vodka in the United States and captured a sizable portion of total vodka sales.

Created by the ad agency TBWA (which later became TBWA\Chiat\Day), the campaign was one of the longest running in advertising history. It consisted of hundreds of print ads that appeared in magazines ranging from the mainstream Sports Illustrated to the limited-circulation I.D. Each ad featured the Absolut bottle, or a representation of it, in a humorous or clever situation. Accompanying the bottle was a two-word tag-line, the first word of which was always "Absolut." One early ad, for example, consisted of an Absolut bottle surrounded by fish and coral with the tagline "Absolut Treasure." Over the years TBWA broadened the concept of the campaign to include original artwork incorporating the Absolut bottle, with the first of these crafted by pop artist Andy Warhol. Moreover, TBWA oversaw the creation of new categories: Absolut fashion ads, which displayed the clothes of designers; so-called spectaculars, onetime ads that often included a gift for the consumer; and ads on cities, which paid homage to both particular cities and the Absolut bottle.

The "Absolut Print" campaign was one of the most lauded and successful in advertising history. It won every major advertising award and was widely viewed as being almost single-handedly responsible for Absolut's 20 years of explosive growth. From the campaign's inception in 1981 to 1995, sales increased 14,900 percent. Collectors of Absolut ads abounded, and hundreds of websites devoted to the ads sprang up on the Internet. Absolut continued to see consistent growth through 2000, but flattening sales thereafter led some to predict that the brand's heyday had passed.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Absolut Vodka had been produced since the 1870s. By 1970, however, Absolut's brand owners, V&S Vin & Sprit, realized that the company's distillery in Aarhus, Sweden, could remain viable only by increasing sales volume through exports. During the 1970s the United States accounted for 60 percent of the vodka consumed in the world. Thus, it was natural that the Swedish vodka would target Americans, but entry into the U.S. market posed a challenge. Almost all of the vodka consumed in the United States was domestically made, and the niche for imported vodka was dominated by Russian brands, especially Stolichnaya. Moreover, most Americans were not willing to spend more to purchase a "luxury" imported vodka, which was generally valued for its relative tastelessness rather than for any qualities that connoisseurs might appreciate.

Vin & Sprit set out to secure an importer for Absolut and in 1978 settled on Carillon Importers, which also imported the high-end liquor Grand Marnier. Carillon sought to create a unique look and feel for Absolut. In order to distinguish the product from other vodkas, Carillon designed a short-necked, rounded bottle inspired by Swedish medicine decanters and printed the product information directly on the bottle rather than on the standard paper labels. When TBWA landed the Carillon account in 1980, it faced a daunting task. The agency "had to establish that Absolut was the best vodka on the market without actually saying that in the ad," Richard Lewis, TBWA\Chiat\Day's worldwide account director for the brand, wrote in Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story.

In attempting to craft an ad campaign that reflected positively on both the product and the person consuming it, the TBWA creative team of Geoff Hayes and Graham Turner decided to focus on the architecture of the Absolut bottle. In a burst of inspiration Hayes hit upon the idea of "Absolut Perfection," which featured a slick photo of the Absolut bottle topped with a halo. The hallmark of the ad was its utter simplicity and a good measure of humor, characteristics TBWA sought for the entire campaign. "Absolut Bravo," which followed shortly afterward, was the first of the ads to be designed for a specific magazine. In this ad, roses were being flung at the Absolut bottle, as if after a bravura performance. The shot was constructed to appear in Playbill, and the theme targeted the magazine's audience. "We wanted to get into the reader's head, wherever he or she was at that very moment," said Lewis. The ad was both a salute to the product and to the actual performance taking place. "Absolut Phenomenon," which covered two pages and showed a rainbow emanating from an Absolut bottle and arcing into a glass of ice, was the first in which Carillon and TBWA experimented with an ad's placement in a magazine.

All of these were what Lewis termed "product ads," in that they featured the Absolut bottle. As the product and the campaign became more recognizable, Carillon and TBWA branched out. "Absolut Stardom," which appeared in 1984, was the first in which the image presented in the ad was not the actual glass bottle. Instead, the bottle image—depicted as a Broadway marquee—was made up of nearly 5,000 individual lights. Although "Absolut Stardom" marked a shift away from literal representations of the Absolut bottle, the trademark remained the distinctive image of the round-shouldered bottle with the perky lid.

In 1985 the Absolut campaign expanded in another innovative direction. Michel Roux, CEO of Carillon, wanted to shore up the vodka's fashionable identity. He commissioned Warhol to produce an original artwork that contained a representation of the Absolut bottle. It was the first time a company had employed art as a marketing strategy. "Absolut Warhol" was a success, and Absolut then commissioned original works from a diverse group of artists. Later collections of works by African-American, Russian, and gay artists were released. A similar venture was the "Absolut Fashion" collection, which began in 1987. After commissioning original designs from top fashion designers featuring representations of the Absolut bottle, TBWA and Carillon photographed models wearing the clothes. Not surprisingly, these ads generally ran in fashion-oriented magazines such as Cosmopolitan and GQ. Another subgenre of the campaign was dubbed "Absolut Spectaculars." These were onetime advertising extravaganzas that often involved a prize for consumers. On Father's Day in 1997, for example, Absolut inserted ties into copies of the New York Times delivered in 12 major cities. The ties, a nod to the stereotypical Father's Day present, were emblazoned with Absolut bottle-shaped sperm.

TARGET MARKET

As a high-end imported vodka, Absolut first sought to reach consumers with a college degree who were working at either their first or second job and who enjoyed the arts and nightlife. According to Lewis, however, the Absolut strategy had always been one of inclusiveness. "We really are interested in men and women of the legal drinking age and over," he said. "Our campaign has an open-door policy. It welcomes all consumers." He stressed that, by rarely featuring people in the ads, the campaign did not limit its appeal to different groups of people. "The brand remains interesting to the ever-new waves of consumers because we fit inside the consumer's imagination about the role the brand plays with them."

One group that the "Absolut Print" campaign consistently targeted was the arts community. The sophistication of the arts ads, especially the "Absolut Artists" and "Absolut Fashion" series, was intended both to appeal to a more urbane audience and to shore up the brand's chic image. After an artist's commissioned work for Absolut was completed, the company hosted an opening that served to publicize the product in the art world. Similarly, some of the "Absolut Fashion" ads ran as multipage inserts in fashion magazines. As a matter of strict policy, Absolut ads portrayed only items or locations that were classy or prestigious. "We perennially strove to maintain Absolut's premium image," Lewis wrote in Absolut Book.

TBWA and Absolut also attempted to reach an audience beyond those who actually encountered the ads in magazines. "Absolut Spectaculars" were designed to attract media attention and enhance the brand's presence in the public consciousness. The first such effort was made in 1987, when Absolut embedded a musical chip that played Christmas carols into a card inserted in New York magazine. Not only were individual consumers enchanted with what was at the time a high-tech trick, but newscasters demonstrated the card on the air, giving Absolut a bonanza of free publicity. Even a New Yorker cartoon was devoted to the subject. In later years Absolut gave away Nicole Miller ties, Donna Karan gloves, and the 1997 Father's Day tie, all inside magazines or newspapers and all designed to bring the product to the attention of a large segment of the population.

Absolut did seek to appeal to specific demographic groups, however. The "Absolut Cities" series, using the Absolut bottle in ways that played off familiar landmarks or perceptions of cities, originated as a way of increasing the brand's visibility in specific markets. The first of the series, "Absolut L.A.," featuring a swimming pool shaped like an Absolut bottle, appeared in 1987 as the brand sought to reach more southern California consumers. The ad first ran in regional publications before being incorporated into the national campaign. Absolut repeated the strategy with cities such as Miami, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco. The company also reached out to the gay community by advertising in the gay press and to African-Americans by commissioning original artworks by well-known black artists.

COMPETITION

Absolut's print campaign revolutionized advertising for alcoholic beverages. While traditional alcohol ads portrayed party scenes, happy-go-lucky couples imbibing the product, or a simple close-up of a bottle, Absolut focused on image. "We made alcohol advertising interesting, funny, and challenging," said Lewis. Absolut's efforts paid off. By 1987 Absolut's sales were soaring and had surpassed Stolichnaya, formerly the leading imported vodka. But Absolut's success served as an example for other vodka and spirits makers, and the import business grew quickly. Absolut faced competition not only from its old rival Stolichnaya but also from Brown-Forman's Finlandia, Skyy Spirits' Skyy Blue, Sidney Frank Importing's Grey Goose, and Millennium Import's Belvedere. Although vodka sales in general were flat, sales of premium brands continued to grow.

According to Advertising Age, many of the premium vodka brands "rely more on word-of-mouth and offbeat marketing techniques than paid media advertising to drive sales." Nevertheless, many of Absolut's competitors learned the lesson summarized by an analyst for the Buffalo News: "Well-advertised brands, such as Absolut Vodka, are doing well." In 1998 Finlandia, which controlled 4 percent of the market in imported premium vodka, launched a redesigned bottle. At the same time Finlandia embarked on a new print campaign that stressed the brand's "purity." According to the St. Louis Courier-Journal, the goal was to "create a more sophisticated image for the brand." In addition to adopting a more hands-on advertising approach, Sidney Frank Importing began an upscale ad campaign for its Grey Goose vodka in 1997. Skyy Blue vodka likewise relied on chic print ads that played off the architecture of the Skyy bottle. Stolichnaya's print campaign featured illustrations done in the Soviet socialist realist style.

THE JOKE'S ON YOU

An Absolut ad appeared in the New York Times on April 1, 1997, that raised the hackles of readers, with thousands calling the company to complain. "You are now reading the first ad in the new Absolut Vodka campaign," the ad copy proclaimed. "The first in a series of messages from a company that has a lot to say about vodka." The ad then recounted the delightful aspects of Absolut—the tiny Swedish hamlet in which the vodka was distilled and the grain from Sweden that was the vodka's "secret ingredient." The ad listed a phone number for readers to call with comments. Those who telephoned heard a recording that ended with the following statement: "As for that bit about the demise of the advertising campaign as you know it, well, Absolut April Fools. Cheers."

Another challenge for Absolut was that in about 1998 the imported-vodka market in the United States began to change. Absolut had virtually created the U.S. market for expensive imported vodka, but superpremium vodkas, led by Grey Goose, effectively created an even more rarified vodka category. Whereas Absolut had in essence dodged the question of product quality and sold itself strictly based on a distinct brand image, Grey Goose found success with a product-quality pitch communicated both through print advertising and by word-of-mouth work with bartenders. Grey Goose grew 410 percent between 2000 and 2004, and a host of superpremiums jumped on the product-quality bandwagon. The rapid growth of the superpremium category came mainly at the expense of Absolut, whose sales began flattening in 2000.

MARKETING STRATEGY

Absolut employed a two-pronged strategy in its efforts to break into and then increase its share of the U.S. vodka market. It strove to craft ads that had broad appeal because of both their content and the mainstream magazines in which they ran. In addition, by creating tailor-made ads, the brand targeted many narrower consumer segments simultaneously. Absolut commissioned ads from a Chicago group called Thirst specifically to appear in the international design magazine I.D. Digital artists made ads for the back cover of Wired magazine. In 1997 Absolut joined forces with fashion designer Gianni Versace and photographer Herb Ritts for an ad exclusively for Vogue, the preeminent fashion magazine. Gay artists were commissioned to produce ads for publications such as the Advocate. Matching ads to magazines meant that the campaign was able to target groups with precision and build its customer base.

TBWA and Absolut sought advice from the magazines themselves in creating these tailor-made ads. By doing so, they redefined the relationship of advertisers and the magazines paid to carry their messages. Moreover, because Absolut spent almost its entire budget on the print campaign (between 1997 and 2005 the annual budget varied, ranging from $25 million to $35 million), the brand was an important source of revenue for the publications in which it advertised. The campaign's success created what Lewis termed the "Pied Piper effect." Magazines clamored for Absolut's advertising because the presence of its ads attracted other advertisers to the publications. Absolut thus developed a nearly symbiotic relationship with its chosen medium.

The "Absolut Print" ads appeared in more than 200 magazines. The Absolut brand team's primary concern in selecting a publication in which to advertise was to ensure that the magazine reflected the brand's image of status and quality. "It has to be a magazine that has good editorials and that is good-looking," said Lewis. "We are careful with whom we associate the brand." Absolut ads appeared in mainstream publications such as the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair as well as in magazines with a more specialized focus and smaller circulation, including Art and Antiques, Spy Magazine, and BOMB.

OUTCOME

The "Absolut Print" campaign was wildly popular among consumers. Collectors scanned magazines, clipped ads, and traded with other devotees, and more than 200 websites were established by people who wanted to post their collections. Richard Lewis of TBWA\Chiat\Day wrote a glossy book about the campaign, Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story, which became one of the best-selling business books in recent decades. The campaign transcended advertising to become an icon of pop culture, but it did more than appeal to the artistic sensibilities of magazine readers. "The Absolut campaign is one of the very lasting campaigns that has really made its mark, which is very hard to do these days," an analyst told the Star-Ledger. "It's taken Absolut from a brand that no one ever heard of and made it the leader in its category."

Despite increasing competition, Absolut maintained a 70 percent share of the premium-vodka category through the end of the twentieth century, well ahead of its closest competitor, Stolichnaya. In 1994 V&S terminated its relationship with Carillon, opting instead for the international marketing muscle of the House of Seagram. The marketing campaign continued unchanged. By 1995 sales had increased 14,900 percent since the campaign's inception. As "Absolut Print" approached its 20th year, and despite a late-1990s decline in the sales of distilled spirits, Absolut regularly posted annual sales growth of 5 percent. All analysts concurred that the Absolut campaign was an integral part of the brand's continuing strong performance. USA Today termed the campaign "a textbook case for creating successful print advertising." The campaign won virtually every advertising award in existence (over 350 total), including two Stephen E. Kelly Awards for the best magazine campaign in America. In 1999 Advertising Age named "Absolut Print" one of the 10 best advertising campaigns of the twentieth century.

It was the case, however, that the brand benefited from social and economic trends. Brandweek credited some of Absolut's success in the 1990s to "connoisseur consumerism," whereby "retro-minded consumers … [were] experimenting with '90s versions of classic cocktails mixed with premium and luxury-priced spirits." According to the Buffalo News, the booming economy of the 1990s empowered consumers to drink higher-priced wines and spirits such as Absolut.

Although the economy slowed in the early years of the new century, vodka sales flourished, rising by 17 percent between 2000 and 2004, primarily on the strength of explosive growth in the superpremium category. Absolut, meanwhile, saw its sales peak in 2000 and remain flat in subsequent years. This fall-off in performance was, of course, partly a result of the superpremiums' success—they had directly targeted a niche that had been Absolut's stronghold—but a portion of Absolut's struggles were also attributed to distribution miscues stemming from a 2001 split with Seagram's.

The "Absolut Print" campaign continued to run, but the brand also began to experiment more seriously with other advertising formats. One of the first consumer brands to have devoted substantial resources to its website, Absolut used interactive branding vehicles such as Absolut DJ and Absolut Director, online applications that, respectively, enabled consumers to compose their own music and make their own short films, and the brand unveiled its first full-scale online campaign in 2001. Absolut also debuted its first-ever U.S. TV spot on cable in 2004, a commercial for the newly launched Absolut Rasberri flavor that was notably consistent with the print campaign: it showed time-lapse footage of an artists' collective painting 12-foot-tall Absolut bottles. Television was also used the following year for the launch of Absolut Apeach. The most significant indicator that Absolut might be plotting a long-term change of direction, however, came in late 2005 when V&S announced that online would thereafter be Absolut's media of choice. "Print is not the key media anymore," Absolut's communications manager for new media told Brandweek. "Our consumer is more focused on the Internet and mobile communication so we're shifting also."

FURTHER READING

Allan, Terri. "Sizzle in the Swizzle." Brandweek, October 27, 1997.

Arndorfer, James. "Models to Troll Taverns for Pricey French Vodka." Advertising Age, May 5, 1997.

Enrico, Dottie. "Absolut Vodka's Ad Spots Withstand the Test of Time." USA Today, September 15, 1997.

Fitzgerald, Beth. "The Garden State Seen through an Absolut Filter." Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, March 19, 1998.

Goetz, David. "Brown-Forman Set to Push Finlandia: Distributor Hopes Finnish Vodka Can Challenge Absolut." St. Louis Courier-Journal, March 26, 1998.

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Parpis, Eleftheria. "Message on a Bottle." Adweek, September 6, 2004.

                                              Rebecca Stanfel

                                                  Mark Lane

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