Ben Cooper

Research In Focus - Vodka: Absolut game-changer

By | 7 October 2013

Is there a brand that has exerted a more profound influence on a drinks category than Absolut Vodka? Ben Cooper doubts it.

Many brands - and brand marketers - claim to have transformed their sectors but genuinely seminal moments in market categories are probably less common than we are led to believe. The vodka market, however, may be one category that has been subject to just such an event, and is arguably still feeling its impact today.

A new report on the vodka sector, produced by just-drinks and The IWSR, notes the continued growth in premium qualities of the spirit. While the global vodka sector as a whole was flat in 2012, higher qualities are outperforming the general market, the report states. Premium-and-above vodka sales increased by 7.6% last year to 25.8m cases. Low-priced vodka, meanwhile, was the only segment to decline.

It would not be fanciful to say that the sustained premiumisation trend seen in vodka - which has spearheaded progress in the category for many years - can be traced back to the decision in the late 1970s by Carillon Importers, then importer for International Distillers and Vintners (IDV) in the US, to take a punt on a new Swedish vodka called Absolut.

Thanks to an equally inspired decision by its president, Lars Lindmark, Swedish state-owned drinks producer Vin & Sprit had set about creating a new vodka for export to mark the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the Absolut Rent Bränvin brand. Absolut Vodka in its modern guise was officially launched in 1979 and Lindmark immediately set his sights on the US market.

While there have been other critical moments in the vodka category's history, and others have launched successful premium brands and invested heavily, the new report refers justifiably to Absolut's arrival in the US as a transformative moment.

The successful introduction of Absolut in the US can be attributed to an inspired decision by Carillon's then boss, Al Singer, to launch the brand and the ground-breaking advertising created by the agency, TBWA. As the just-drinks/IWSR report states, TBWA "pioneered many of the marketing elements that are today the hallmarks of the modern white spirits industry: The emphasis on bottle design, the trendy advertising, the association with the world of art and fashion, the move into flavours and, importantly, the premium pricing."

Singer's 'light bulb' moment is even more remarkable in view of the fact that the research Carillon conducted at the time told him he was wasting his time. Carillon spent US$83,000 on market research to find out if American drinkers would buy a vodka from Sweden. "It was all negative," Michel Roux, Carillon's only salesman at the time - who went on to lead the company - recounted in an interview in 2007.

However, despite the research telling him that those who had heard of Sweden did not view it as a vodka-producing country, Singer went ahead. The likes of Ciroc, Ketel One, Belvedere, Grey Goose - even Smirnoff - have cause to thank Singer and Roux for their chutzpah.

These brands - and notably Sidney Frank’s creation of the super-premium (above US$30) segment of the white spirits market in the mid-1990s with Belvedere - have also had a significant impact on the vodka segment, but it was without doubt Singer's move which set the ball rolling.

Moreover, as the new report bears out, the effects of Carillon's counter-intuitive move are still being felt today.

The US and Russia account for the overwhelming majority of the premium-and-above vodka sold globally today, the report states. The US alone has a 74% share, representing some 18.9m nine-litre cases, while Russia has an 11.5% share (2.9m cases). Brazil is the next largest market with a 2.3% share (601,250 cases).

The premium and super-premium vodka segments are developing in many European markets, the report continues, albeit often from a small base. At around 320,000 cases, Spain is the European leader in the premium-and-above segment, though this is largely because Absolut is classified as a premium brand there.

Super-premium brands are also gaining a presence in Europe. The UK is the leading market for these brands, reaching the 115,000-case mark in 2012, with France (57,000 cases) and Spain (34,390 cases) the next largest markets. The top end in Turkey is also seeing growth from a small base, the report states.

The last five years have seen growth for super-premium vodkas in France, Italy and Germany. In fact, according to the report, "there is hardly any market in Europe where super-premium brands are not growing". The US super-premium market is also "booming" again, recording growth of 9.5% in 2012 over 2011.

Absolut has also had something of a transformative influence on its current owner, Pernod Ricard, which acquired the brand in 2009.

In the just-drinks/IWSR report, Pernod's deputy chief executive and chief executive-elect, Alexandre Ricard, has this to say about the brand: "Our ambition is to become worldwide leaders in wines and spirits. If you want to be number one in the industry, you clearly have to be present in the largest segment of the industry, which is premium vodka. We had a gap and Absolut filled that gap. We were sub-scale in our number one market, which is the US, which as a consequence made us less efficient in that market. The Absolut acquisition was transformational for the US market and allowed us to redefine completely our route to market there."

Ricard continues: "Moreover, our portfolio was skewed towards ageing stock products and Absolut brought us more into the immediate cash-generative white spirits world.

"There is a scarcity of iconic brands available for an acquisition. You don’t have those kinds of brands up for sale every day and the day one becomes available on the market, then guess what? You have to pay for it."

Expert analysis

Global market review of vodka – forecasts to 2018

Some interesting developments have been occuring within the Vodka category since the publication of our previous global market review of the category.

Sectors: Spirits

Companies: Pernod Ricard, Absolut, Smirnoff, Belvedere

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