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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1 comment

  1. Reminds me of a story about someone calling an operator in Hawaii asking for the correct pronounciation of Hawaii. The caller asked the operator “Is it pronounced Ha Wha Ee or Ha Va Ee?” The operator answered, “Ha Va Ee”. The caller said, “Thank you”. The operator said, “You’re Vehl come”.

    Happy Holidays. Joan

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