Vodkas I have known…and wish I hadn’t

I’ve been thinking about expanding the Absolut Tales that you see in the Categories section to the right. So as I was gathering my notes and recollections, I was reminded of two attempts at trying to launch vodka as the category was beginning to show its strength.

Both attempts failed.

I was running marketing for the Asia Pacific/Global Duty Free division and like the rest of Seagram we needed a vodka brand. By the time I got there plans were well underway — a concept, package, manufacturing, sales and marketing plans and an interesting name, Bolshoi. The brand was made in an eastern European city and the idea was to ship it through Siberia to the port city of Vladivostok and then on to markets in Asia.

When I got to the group, I was greeted with the marketing plan and budget. As I went over the materials to acquaint myself with what was going on, I noticed something peculiar in the shipping costs. There was an invoice for close to or over $50,000 (I can’t recall the exact amount) that was over and above the actual transportation costs. It was marked, “Transport Support.”

I asked about it and was told it was for a company of security guards (probably soldiers) who would accompany the initial shipment through Russia, the Urals and Siberia. The guards were needed to make sure the shipment got there safely.

The brand did well in Asia but was discontinued when Absolut came along. Good thing because the cost of goods would have killed it anyway.

The other attempt involved Wyborowa from Poland. The W’s are pronounced as V’s and therein lies part of the tale.

Imported vodkas in the US were just beginning to make their move and somehow we got a shot at getting the distribution of this brand with a long pedigree. It dated back to 1823 where it sold domestically, became a strong export brand throughout Europe and the first vodka brand to get an international trademark in 1927. Best of all, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Poles were eager to go capitalist.

A group of us went over and quickly learned what it takes to deal with a country emerging from the shadows of communism. We were at a conference table and there were many different liquids for us to drink, as you would expect, while we discussed the prospects of doing business. Mineral water, sparkling water, spring water even tonic. The bottles were in all different colors, some were brown, some clear, some tinted. So when you poured a liquid from a particular colored bottle (none had labels) thinking that this one was the sparkling water, it would turn out to be tonic. Our hosts made it clear that the economic difficulties meant that all bottles were reused and did not allow the “luxury” of dedicated glass.

Okay, I thought, these folks are doing the best they can, making do and trying to move forward despite the obstacles. Good for them.

As the discussions progressed, the issue of package size came up. They had a litre size but the next size down was a 700ml, which is the required size in Europe. Unfortunately, that size is not legal in the US, which requires a 750ml. We explained that in order to sell in the off-premise trade, we needed them to produce that glass. After much whispered conversation and heated exchanges in Polish, the managing director said that they had found an answer. He informed us that rather than go to the expense of new molds and glass manufacture, they would use the litre bottles and simply fill them three quarters full.

None of us laughed nor revealed our amusement. It was, after all, a creative solution stemming from a difficult economic environment. We merely pointed out that the US government wouldn’t allow that and joked about the interference of bureaucrats — east and west.

Turns out that the production problems were solved, a new contemporary package was developed and the brand was launched. Nothing, however, could overcome the brand name and call issue. No one wants to stand in a bar and call for a brand they can’t pronounce. Ad campaigns and on-premise programming couldn’t counter the verbal stumble of saying Wyborowa.

The brand does under 2 million cases around the world — most of it in Poland. The rest is in Italy, France and Mexico. Proper pronunciation is not required.

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Tequila Sunrise, Ascent, or Hype?

Wine and Spirits Daily had a story last week entitled, IS TEQUILA THE NEW VODKA?

Good question.

The article quoted a writer at the Washington Post who said… “A new trend emerges: the proliferation of ‘ultra-premium’ tequilas targeted at a club crowd that slowly has begun to trade in Grey Goose for Patron.” The article goes on to point out that “various social indicators, such as Al Roker claiming on the Today Show that Tequila is the new Vodka.” (I must have missed the announcement about Al Roker as social forecaster. I thought he did the weather.)

A few observations:

Drinking Patron at clubs at the expense of Vodka brands like Grey Goose is not a new concept. They are often interchangeable depending on the mood and occasion. Both brands are at the top of the heap in terms of being icons.

Further, it’s not Tequila, it’s Patron. Generally speaking, among most consumers, the Tequila category has three brands…Patron, Cuervo and all others. Remember the old adage? Consumers drink brands not categories.

Tequila will grow as it continues to be the focus of new product introductions and in that regard, it will be the new Vodka. I don’t have the actual data but I’d bet there have been more new Tequilas introduced in the last few years than Vodka. The shifts in Vodka preferences from the high end to mid-priced and value brands make new Tequila entries more enticing.

So, among most consumers, Vodka will continue to rule. Whether Al Roker thinks so or not.

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Roughing it — A Vodka Fable

The Chairman of a global spirits company decided that he wanted to build a distillery in the land of his ancestors in Eastern Europe. After all, he reasoned, the communist regimes had recently fallen and since most countries in the region were impoverished, it would be economically beneficial for all. The country was known for its Vodka capabilities (not to mention consumption) and had the manufacturing infrastructure. With some upgrading and reasonable investment, world class Vodka could be produced and sold by his company.

Perhaps the rudiments of manufacturing infrastructure existed but everything else in the country was in a state of economic disrepair.

Nevertheless, the wheels were set in motion. The executive in charge of the European business unit was given the assignment of making it happen.

Things moved along well. A plant with capacity for expanded growth was found, production experts were engaged, top-notch grain was somehow located, distillation and formulae were worked out and the plant began to produce Vodka.

Proud of the achievement his idea set into motion, the Chairman decided that he would come to the country to officially open the factory and visit with the leaders of the newly democratized country. He also thought it would be a good idea to meet with the leaders at a lakefront villa or dacha.

This was a major problem for the executive in charge. Even the most lavish dachas were shabby and dilapidated and the Chairman and his entourage were used to the very best.

What to do? His colleagues in New York told him to spare no expense. The Chairman was known for his anger and disappointing him would be a career ender.

So, the head of Europe found a dacha, engaged workmen from the country and flew in top-notch carpenters and plumbers from England to assist. Floors and ceilings were repaired, electricity was enhanced, plastering and painting took place and the rundown dacha was transformed. Furnishings were rented and flown in.

About a week before the scheduled arrival, the team realized that getting food the Chairman enjoys was an additional problem. No worries … a container of provisions was purchased in London and also flown in.

All was set for the arrival of the Chairman after much last minute scurrying and concerted effort.

His private plane was met and, since it was late at night, the entourage was driven right to the dacha and went to bed.

The next morning the executive arrived at the dacha and was asked by the Chairman to join him at breakfast, which was an elaborate meal.

The executive (holding his breath) said, “So, Chairman, how did you enjoy your first night?”

To which the Chairman replied, “Oh you know me, I’m used to roughing it in these third world countries.”

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