Seagram and Vodka

Until the “acquisition” of Absolut, Seagram was not just a vodka-less company; it was an Ostrich hiding its head in whiskey pretending not to see the world of booze change.

Sam Bronfman’s aversion/reluctance to sell vodka is widely known. Perhaps for him, liquor needed to be aged or brown or have the word whiskey on the bottle. Whatever his reasons, the company was never a vodka player. In fact, when I was in market research, one of the older executives told me the story of how Mr. Sam reacted to a research project about changing consumer alcohol tastes. It may be apocryphal but it sure has the ring of truth.

One of the most notable researchers of the 50s and 60s, Alfred Politz, was an early leader in the techniques of polling and opinion analysis. He was commissioned to do a study of changing consumer alcohol tastes and attitudes. The presentation of the findings took place at an executive retreat and, in an unusual display of bonhomie, Mr. Sam suggested they review the results while sitting around the pool.

Page after page of the report pointed to the potential rise of vodka at the expense of whiskies. Politz was said to have been very clear that the evidence overwhelmingly leaned in this direction. It was also clear that Mr. Sam was getting angrier and angrier. Finally, he got up from his chaise, grabbed the report out of the researcher’s hands, threw it in the pool, muttered some obscenity and stormed off. Politz was said to have been relieved not to join his report.

So while competitors were developing Smirnoff, Popov, Stolichnaya and other brands, Seagram was struggling with entries like Wolfschmidt, Nikolai and Crown Russe.

Finally, someone decided to create a new vodka brand but, unlike most of those on the market at the time, it was to be imported vodka. In fact it was called Seagram Imported Vodka or SIV, as it was lovingly referred to. Imported all the way from Canada.

Management at the time knew that the “white goods” race was passing Seagram by and the pressure to succeed was very strong. So much so that when a presentation to a major California chain was set up to expand distribution, the “brass” decided to attend.

Picture this, a president, an owner, the head of marketing, the head of sales, brand managers…all fly off in the company plane to attend this meeting on SIV. They get to LA early with time to kill before the meeting. Since a few of them had never seen the inside of a chain store liquor department, they decide to visit a few stores.

Next thing you know there are 4 or 5 suits walking the aisles checking the shelves and watching consumers make decisions and purchases. They’re paying particular attention to the vodka section and spot a man looking at the brands and seemingly trying to make a decision.  A member of the entourage goes up to him, takes a bottle of SIV off the shelf, hands it to the man and says, “check this one…it’s imported.”

The man studies the bottle for a moment or two looks at the exec and, as he puts it back on the shelf says, “that’s not imported, it’s Seagram.

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Keeper of the “goodies”

At a recent visit to a Mets game (sorry I can’t bring myself to call it anything other than Shea Stadium) I was reminded of a story about baseball tickets.

Like many companies that entertain customers and clients, Seagram had a designated employee that handled customer/trade events and trips, national sales incentive programs and – the big prize – season tickets to sporting events in the NYC area.

One of these individuals, who I will call Mr. Keeper, was a nice and friendly guy until the subject of tickets came up. He didn’t see himself merely as the guardian or custodian of the coveted seats. Oh no, he was the protector, the de facto owner. Requests for tickets to a game were more often than not subjected to interrogation as to the identity of the intended customer and the rationale behind the request. And, invariably, unless the requestor was of significant ‘rank’ the request was denied outright or “someone else already got them.”

The management of the US operation passed to a new team and Mr. Keeper got an assignment outside of the US operation but still based in NYC.

The team that took over had its own designated employee to handle the customer relations, events and incentive trips. But when the first need for ballgame tickets arose, Mr. Keeper informed the new designate that the seats will be staying with Mr. Keeper and will be doled out as he saw fit.

Needless to say the new team was incensed and a (gentle) management skirmish erupted. But, with bigger issues to be addressed, the matter was set aside — not forgotten, just temporarily tabled.

One day, a senior executive asked for and grudgingly received tickets to a top notch Mets game.

While he knew the general vicinity on the field level where the seats were located, he wasn’t sure as to the exact location. He stopped an usher at the top of the section and handed the tickets to him. The usher looked at the tickets, looked at the executive, then back at the tickets, then at the executive again.

“Anything wrong?” asked the executive.

“Oh no,” said the usher. “I’m just surprised that you’re sitting in Mr. Keeper’s seats.”

For all I know he still has those seats.

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Advertising (2) — Creativity

If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative. David Ogilvy (O&M)

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. David Ogilvy.

Is creativity in brand communication getting better, getting worse or staying the same?

Ad agency execs will tell you that creativity is alive and well and that memorable and effective advertising is as prevalent today as it was in the past. They will also add that the fragmentation of media creates an environment whereby delivering a highly effective message is diffused and expensive. And, the new media options (digital) require new forms of creativity.

The detractors will take the view that the demise of mainstream media has hurt creativity but not as much as the changes in the advertising business itself. They point out that only small, independent shops can replicate the talent of the past. The large agencies are too busy worrying about overhead and financials than concentrating on the quality of the work.

An ad agency executive friend of mine who sold his shop to one of the conglomerates tells the story of an annual agency-wide meeting a few years ago:

All the company Presidents were asked to report on the activities of their business unit. Speaker after speaker – from New York to New Delhi – talked about revenues, profitability, new business development, overhead, etc. Finally one exec from a highly creative firm couldn’t stand it anymore and got up and shouted, “Are we ever going to talk about the f*****g work we produce?”

What’s your view? Is the advertising creative in the booze business better or worse than it used to be? Hit the comment button to the upper right of this posting and let me know your view. Or, send me an email.

Finally, the most appropriate quote from David Ogilvy for this blog…

Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I’m far better able to write.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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