This is the time of year when we used to meet with distributor management to discuss the previous year and how we looked over the holidays. It reminded me of a story about a candid assessment of a new vodka product from V&S (Absolut owners at the time) called Sundsvall.
Let me set the stage for you.
In the late 90’s it was clear that high end, connoisseur and, for some, “badge” vodka products were on the ascendency. From a day-to-day marketing and sales standpoint, it was also clear that Absolut was becoming a middle brand, flanked by the top shelf entries above and the value priced vodkas below.
We requested, pleaded and ultimately begged our Swedish partner to supply a brand that would compete with Ketel and Grey Goose. Unfortunately, the gentleman who ran the brand at V&S was totally disinterested. His intractable position was that Absolut was the best and to have a more expensive and presumably higher quality entry would belie their proposition.
No amount of cajoling could change his mind. We tried to explain that the analogy was in the scotch market — single malts are not better than blended scotches, they’re different. He ignored his own people, those of us in the trenches and even the owner.
Finally, out of the blue, we were informed that a top shelf vodka brand would soon be available. I suspect that the owner went to the top of the V&S feeding chain or, for all I know, the King of Sweden to get it done. We didn’t care so long as we had a viable brand.
Ah, viable, what a good word. Like the cliché, it’s in the eye of the beholder.
The good news was that the proposition made good sense and was indeed viable including differences from Absolut in ingredients and distillation process. The up charge of $3 to $4 higher than the other super premiums was well justified in terms of the resulting taste and initial reactions.
There were two main problems. First, V&S wanted no association between Sundsvall and Absolut, even going so far as to bypass Absolut’s longtime agency (TBWA) in favor of an agency in Boston. There was no reference to Absolut anywhere in the marketing material. No opportunity for synergy or leverage.
The bigger problem was that the package did not live up to the super premium expectation or price point. It was, at best, blah. I couldn’t find a photo on the Internet so you’ll have to take my word for it. But I remember research that indicated that servers and distributors liked the taste but felt the packaging “too plain” and “too discreet vs. competition.” Someone described it as “a clear barrel with an orange shrink wrapped top.” Those are the most positive things we heard.
No surprise that after a strong initial push the brand just languished.
The scene now shifts to the Seagram Advisory Council at some offsite location and serious winter watering hole. Don’t be fooled, the invitees were the best and brightest distributor management people in the business. While the afternoon and evenings were fun, the 5 or 6 hour work sessions were grueling. This was an occasion where the supplier was on the chopping block and got to hear about strengths and weaknesses versus competition. No BS, no holds barred, all straightforward and candid remarks.
Occasionally, there would be moments of reticence where the distributors kind of hemmed and hawed, not wanting to offend. That’s what happened when the subject of Sundsvall came up. Lots of looking at the floor.
I knew why but needed my management to hear the problems first hand from our customers who obviously didn’t want to offend or appear negative.
Question after question was lobbed and the answers were platitudes and fluff. Finally, I pushed and said, “Why is Sundsvall doing so poorly?”
One very senior manager from a very large wholesaler operation had the courage to call it like it was. He told the Absolut Truth and said, “Arthur … it’s simple — the baby is ugly.”
A few months later the brand was gone. What a relief.
To this day I believe that the V&S senior manager who never wanted an up market brand in the first place, did all he could to sabotage the effort. It wasn’t the only mistake he made.