Absolut Truth

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 …

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Cultural Differences

Now for something totally different and unrelated to the booze business…

My last posting on vodkas from around the world stimulated a lot of conversation about Americans doing business internationally. My friend Ernie Speranza, a toy industry executive and former head of marketing at Toys R Us told me the following story that I want to share with you.

“Ah, the fun of working for an international company. While not as much fun as the spirits world, the international toy world had its share of strangeness too.

We (Toys R Us) were opening our first store in Saudi Arabia and the night before we opened the authorities came in and told us we could not open because of the packaging for Bathing Suit Barbie. It seemed they were concerned that people could not handle such an obscene display of western flesh…. or plastic.

We then had to work into the night using black magic marker on the see-through packaging in order to hide Barbie’s breasts. Here I am, an MBA, the head of marketing for arguably the largest toy retailer in the world with 20 years experience in marketing, and I am sitting on a concrete floor in an Arab country under penalty of jail time using a black magic marker to hide Barbie’s breasts. You just can’t make this shit up.”

A new product idea — Burqa Barbie

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Getting back to the booze business, Ernie once told me a story of his experience doing business in Japan and I used his story when working with the Absolut brand owners.

Let me set the stage for you… When we started working with our Swedish partners, every now and …

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Absolut Tales

The Gulfstream took off from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport with a full load of executives, all of whom had the satisfaction of knowing that the global distribution rights to Absolut were signed, sealed and delivered.

If you’ve ever flown on a corporate jet, you know how great it is. You board quickly and easily, take off on time (or even ahead of time) and generally are met on the tarmac a few steps from the plane and off you go.

Despite this great convenience, I’ve heard people complain about the absence of frequent flier miles, which always makes me laugh at the silliness of the thought. For me, however, this particular flight had one disadvantage — it was full of Seagram brass. Every one of the 14 seats was taken and there was no place to hide. And, every one of the 14 had 5 or 6 ideas about marketing and how best to grow the brand further. After all, we were taking over the brand from the legendary Michel Roux who grew the brand with a series of innovative and effective marketing actions.

While getting the brand elated us, we were also mindful of the daunting task ahead. Especially the marketing guy…me.

This was best summed up by the owner who, after laying out his thoughts and vision, said, “Arturo, I have four words for you — don’t f**k it up.”

Michel Roux was indeed a hard act to follow. Carillon Importers was part of a large corporation, but he ran the brand entrepreneurially, with vision and resources to take this fledgling brand to renowned marketing levels.

There is a great story about Michel’s brand champion efforts that I recently …

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