Brown-Forman gained a majority stake in Finlandia in 2002 and, having put its hefty marketing muscle behind the vodka brand, now sells more than 1.7m cases of it a year worldwide. In our second Just the Answer interview, John Higgins, brand manager for the Americas, and Jennie Meador, brand director for the US, told us what to expect next.

J-D: Why did Brown-Forman increase its ownership of Finlandia to 80%, and does it plan to buy the remainder from Finnish state-owned spirits producer Altia?

Higgins: (Premium vodka) is the largest category in the US, and the fastest-growing one, and Brown-Forman wanted to make sure it had a product in this category. We'd marketed Finlandia in the US for a number of years and knew how great it was, and we wanted to make sure we'd have it permanently. That's why the shareholders thought it was so important to have majority ownership. We have 80% ownership now, with an eye on getting more later. I'm sure we're looking at that, but that's all I can say.

J-D: What's Brown-Forman's strategy for Finlandia?

Higgins: Finlandia has been around since 1971 in the US, which is fantastic. We're real. We're authentic. We have a lot of history and heritage, which is great. But there are a lot of people who have gotten into the game, like Grey Goose and Chiroc, and there's a lot of excitement behind those new brands. What we want to do with Finlandia is revitalise it and bring it into today's consumer mindset. In the first stage of that, we introduced an upgraded package. It's been out in the US for a year, and now we're introducing it globally.

At the same time, we've kept true to the heritage of Finland and Finlandia by making it simple and pure. We've tried to keep the best of the history of Finlandia while bringing it into the 21st century consumer mindset. The second thing is to truly make it a player in the premium vodka category. We've been around a while, and it's been stagnant in the US.

We know we have one of the finest vodkas, period, no matter what the price range. With that investment of ownership, we've also made an investment regarding packaging, media support and promotional support to increase our visibility with consumers.

J-D: How much is Brown-Forman spending to promote Finlandia?

Higgins: Brown-Forman doesn't talk about exact dollars. But after we brought our stake to 80%, we more than tripled the investment previously made on packaging, media spend and promotional spend for both on-premise and off-premise.

J-D: Finlandia launched a mango flavour last summer-how is it performing?

Higgins: We were first to market with lime and cranberry. Now we're the first on the premium vodka side to come out with mango. That happened in late-June and July, and I'm happy to say it's exceeded our expectations-so much so that we initially had some problems getting product on the shelves. We've really got a winner on our hands.

J-D: How much is Brown-Forman spending to market mango?

Higgins: We don't reveal that amount, but when you look at Finlandia as a whole, we're putting 20% to 30% of the total brand spend behind mango.

J-D: Are there more Finlandia flavours to come?

Higgins: Yes. Without going into details, we're in the midst of going through our methodology and within the next year will launch another new flavour.

J-D: How fast is Finlandia growing?

Higgins: The latest Nielson numbers show Finlandia's up 12%, compared to the category's 10% growth. The brand has reacted (to Brown-Forman's additional investment), and we've seen steady growth and growth that's outpacing the category.

J-D: How long can the premium vodka and flavored vodka categories sustain such growth?

Higgins: We see the category showing double-digit growth over the next four to five years.

J-D: How is Finlandia performing internationally?

Meador: Definitely, from a global perspective, the future's bright for Finlandia. We have an extremely strong awareness in Poland and Russia, and we're also the market leader in several countries like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In recent years, the growth in Poland has been explosive, and we've grown the brand to over 100,000 cases. In big
markets like Poland and Russia, the sky's the limit.

J-D: Where will Finlandia ultimately fit in Brown-Forman's portfolio?

Higgins: Brown-Forman speaks with its cheque book. The fact that it spent that money (to buy a majority stake) tells you that they believe in this brand and that it's going to be a player.