Vodka’s Journey: The Bumpy Road Ahead

Is the largest spirit category in the US heading for tough times?

15663595_mlDespite the massive size of the vodka market at 70 million 9-liter cases, there are signs that the rate of growth will steadily decline in the years ahead. If nothing else, all products have life cycles (think bell-shaped curve) and tastes and preferences are subject to change over time. After all, what got vodka to its height in the first place were the changing preferences away from whiskies. Now, it’s Whiskey’s turn to move back into favor. But, that’s only part of the story.

Vodka History

Who invented vodka is the subject of some debate – the Russians, Swedes or Poles – it really doesn’t matter for this analysis, so let’s fast forward to the US and the post WWII period.

Prior to the 1960s, whiskies (imported or domestic) were dominant with a smattering of gin preferences. Many distillers at the time looked down their noses at vodka, partly because “odorless, colorless and tasteless” was not in the distiller’s blending art and, partly because it was seen as the alcohol preference of excessive drinkers. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the Smirnoff (or was it Popov) ad slogan “leaves you breathless” was a signal to have a drink anytime/anyplace and no one will know.

By the 1970s preferences among drinkers began to change in favor of vodka thanks to: James Bond, changing tastes of women (preferring mixable, sweet drinks), drinkers who wanted the effect of alcohol without the “silent shudder” and the emergence of interesting and fun concoctions (cocktails, such as the Moscow Mule).

The 1980s and 1990s brought further accelerated growth with vodka cocktails (think Sex and The City) and the advent and growth of imported 9924372_mlbrands led by Absolut and it’s advertising. At the beginning of this period there were only a handful of imports, most notably Stoli, Finlandia and Absolut. But, a number of important factors changed the picture.

In the 1980s, based on Russian misadventures (Korean Airline, Olympic boycotts, etc), Absolut benefitted from the Stoli boycott and the door was open to other imports. In the mid 90s, brands like Ketel One and Grey Goose taught the consumer that super and ultra premium vodka brands were worth paying for. At the same time, flavored vodkas began to make their presence known and further changed the category.

The Flavor explosion

At first, the flavors had some meaning and a strategic role to play. Want to enhance the flavor of a drink, choose citrus vodka; make that Bloody Mary zing, choose spicy vodka; and so on. Gradually the ‘simplistic’ flavors gave way to the exotic – mango, strawberry, apple, peach, vanilla and so on.

By the 2000s, the flavors took hold and gradually moved from exotic to the ridiculous – marshmallow, whipped cream, sorbet, cake, candy, bacon, salmon and other flavors that, as the saying goes, I wouldn’t drink with your mouth.

While this senselessness was going on, another factor entered the market – the low priced imported segment. Brands like Svedka, Sobieski, Wodka and others basically said to the consumer, “Hey, you’ve been overpaying; here’s imported quality at a low price.”

The net result of the “tutti frutti” flavors and inexpensive brands has been to churn the market and create confusion. Both among the trade, stuck with dozens of fad flavors and brands, and consumers, who face a dizzying array of choices.

Where is it all heading?

The storm clouds on the horizon are coming from two main directions – craft products and whiskey and even a combination of the two.

Ironically, whiskey (particularly American) originally defeated by vodka, has come back and with a vengeance. From 2012 to 2013, the rate of whiskey’s growth was two and a half times faster than all vodka including flavored. Leading the whiskey charge were flavored whiskeys (the sweetness factor again); interest in unique cocktails (traditional and new) and mixologist skills; and the craft, small batch explosion.

Whiskies of all types have begun to capture the drinking imagination of consumers regardless of age or gender. They’re fun to talk about, to drink and to identify with – whether bourbon corn, rye, or malt – they represent serious products and an understanding that, unlike vodka, they require skill that is more than turning on a tap.

Tito's Vodka
Tito’s Vodka

Enter the craft or small batch phenomenon. Not only is it fueling the whiskey growth, it’s also impacting the vodka category. Take a brand like Tito’s for example; it’s grown by over 40% compounded in the last five years, based largely on its “Hand Crafted” claim. Although, I wish someone could explain to me how you are hand crafted at nearly 1.5 million 9-liter cases.

Nevertheless, the craft concept, claim or whatever, is also becoming a factor in vodka with micro distilleries and the anti-filtration movement that’s just beginning. (By the way, the “unfiltered” vodka approach makes me chuckle… we’ve gone from filtered over charcoal, lava rocks, precious minerals and vestal virgins during a full moon to what, straight from the still?)

Our vodka
Our/Vodka Detroit

I think the Big Boys are starting to take notice of the vodka evolution. What choice do they have other than watch their sales go down and miss their bonuses. Take Absolut’s Elyx for example. It’s billed as “the single estate handcrafted vodka.” Other than marketing hype, I have no idea what they are trying to say about the brand. I think it has something to do with copper stills and an offbeat “global creative director.”

Also, Pernod Ricard’s Absolut is going into the micro distillery business and opening local distilleries around the world including Seattle, Detroit, London, Melbourne and others. It’s called Our/Vodka and supposedly the uniqueness of the concept will return the brand to its glory days. Good luck with that.

Grey Goose VX
Grey Goose VX

Finally, Bacardi’s Grey Goose is introducing Grey Goose VX, which “contains Cognac created from grapes from the Grande Champagne cru.” It’s currently only available at Travel Retail outlets, probably as a market test of the viability. According to The Spirits Business, “Bacardi has claimed Grey Goose VX (which stands for vodka exceptionelle) is a “significant step change for the vodka/white spirits category”.

So look for more churn in the vodka market in the years ahead. The growth will decelerate as the crazy flavors are put out to pasture (or wherever errant products go) and the competition from outside the category heats up.

The response from the vodka companies will be interesting to track. I can’t help but think of the expression, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

 

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Great Tsotchkes (aka Swag) I Have Known

In keeping with the theme of the last few postings on sales promotion, dealer loaders and assorted point of sale issues, I thought I would continue that theme particularly in light of the holiday season. The Advertising and Promotion Awards in the Nov/Dec issue of Beverage Dynamics also prompted me to address this subject.

First, for the uninformed, the Urban Dictionary defines Tsotchke as “free goods given by companies to consumers, buyers, trade-show participants or other target audiences to promote brand recognition or customer loyalty.”

So, here are some points of view on the subject including some picks and pans from yours truly…

The most consistent and impactful POS has to go to the Absolut folks, particularly their multi-case floor displays. In fact, Beverage Dynamics gave it 1st place for 2010. No wonder, since Carol Giaconelli at Pernod Ricard (and a Seagram alumnae) is among the most imaginative sales promotion people I know. Even after working on Absolut for many years and for different regimes, Carol maintains her creative edge.

While I’m on the subject, I suppose the Hall of Fame for floor displays with loader items has to be the Captain Morgan mirror. According to Sam Ellias, the CM guru back in the day, that promotion was a prominent reason for the brand’s early success. Apparently, all a sales person had to do was to show the mirror in order to get the question, “how many cases do I need to buy?”

I managed to find a photo online. Despite it’s popularity at the time, you can still get one on eBay for under $25.

Now to the pans…

There are lots of awards in Beverage Dynamics for co-packs, gift packs and cartons/tins. The so-called value added packaging. Sorry, but I still don’t get it. In this environment manufacturers expect to entice consumers with Tsotchkes? If you want to measure effectiveness go to a flea market or eBay after the holidays and you’ll find glasses, shakers and pitchers galore. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them came from retailers.

The Hall of Shame best/worst sales promotion item of all time came under my watch on behalf of Coyote Tequila. Don’t get me wrong the promotion item was great. It was a back bar pedestal with a howling Coyote as the centerpiece with a bottle on the base. Each time the bartender picked up the bottle a button was triggered and the sound of a howling Coyote was heard. Very cool. Very effective.

Just one small problem — Coyote Tequila tasted like crap. As the saying goes, “I wouldn’t drink it with your mouth.”

And now, dear reader, I have two questions for you.

Care to share your nominees for the best and worst promotions you’ve seen now or in the past? Either hit the comment button or send me an email.

Also, as I went through the 40 advertising and promotion awards by Beverage Dynamics, there were lots of first, second or third place winners from many major suppliers — Brown Forman, Heaven Hill, Skyy/Campari, Pernod, Bacardi and others. None were from Diageo. I wonder why? It could be that their market position and brand shares allows them to spend in other ways. That would explain the dearth of POS recognition. But no ads, traditional or digital, made it either. Huh.

As we used to say in Brooklyn, wait ‘til next year.

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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 asked him to confirm. I wasn’t sure if it was true or a booze business myth.

It seems he was in the Detroit airport waiting to depart when he noticed a man wearing an Absolut t-shirt. Alarm bells went off in his head for two reasons. First, there were no Absolut t-shirts and he and didn’t want them, so clearly it was counterfeit. Second and most important, the man in question (according to Michel) must have weighed over 350 pounds and despite the triple XL size, it was a very snug fit.

Clearly bothered by his brand portrayed in such a manner, Roux stopped the man, told him he was looking for that particular t-shirt and offered him $100 to buy it. The man accepted the generous offer. They went to a souvenir store, bought a replacement and now Michel owned it.

The man left happy with this transaction and the Absolut t-shirt was promptly tossed in the trash.

True story.

In my opinion, the Absolut brand has gone through 4 periods in its development. The first era was with M. Roux and Carillon Importers. Next came the Seagram years and further, albeit different, growth. The third period was one in which the brand began to languish despite the efforts of some (but not all) capable people. Today, the ownership of the brand is in the hands of Pernod Ricard with the difficult task of once again polishing its luster.

I plan to cover the Absolut story from these vantage points in the future.

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