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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