The imported premium vodka, Svedka, is without doubt a brand success story in the dynamic US premium vodka market. But its raunchy advertising has ridden roughshod over industry rules causing concern among competitors. David Robertson reports.

For any drinks company wanting to break into a market as crowded as premium vodka, it is crucial to craft a marketing message capable of grabbing attention. But there can be few companies that have gone as far as Spirits Marque One, which markets Svedka vodka, to get that attention.

In the six years since its US launch, Svedka has become infamous for its eye-catching adverts featuring scantily clad men and women in provocative poses. Describing itself as the "new definition of adult entertainment", Svedka has also courted the celebrity circuit hosting a birthday party for Gwyneth Paltrow and sponsoring Victoria's Secret post-catwalk parties.

Spirits Marque One has unashamedly used sex and celebrity to create a buzz that has made Svedka the "in" drink with the "in" crowd. Although controversial, it is a strategy that has paid off, with sales rising from 22,000 nine-litre cases in year one to 450,000 cases in 2004. It now has 5% of the US vodka market and is the fifth highest-selling imported vodka.

With financial backing from a Belgian company, ex-Hennessy executive, Guillaume Cuvelier, set up Spirits Marque One in 1996. Cuvelier arranged for his vodka to be distilled and bottled in Sweden. Spirits Marque One owns the Svedka trademark, controls distribution and marketing but does not actually make the product - although that might change in the future.

"Our initial success was due to relentless persistence on my part, combined with the quality of the product," Cuvelier says, adding that the brand also benefited from strong growth in the vodka market as a whole. "There has been a clear shift from brown to clear spirits and that has really benefited us. Vodka is an easy drink to access because you don't need to know about Single Malts or Cognacs. Vodka is also neutral in taste, which makes it easy to mix. And as consumers have become more familiar with vodka they have become more discerning and are looking for a smoother taste, which has led to the growth in the premium sector."

Although the growth in the vodka market will certainly have helped, it is Svedka's targeted, and often extreme, marketing that has really fuelled growth. "We had to establish a brand identity and we created a marketing campaign that was very noisy. Our strategy was to reach out to the trendsetters and fashion opinion leaders. We concentrated on opinion formers in New York, Los Angeles and Miami and built from there."

The identity Spirits Marque One settled on for Svedka was as the "new definition of adult entertainment" and its marketing reflects this.
Its advertising, which appears only in hip magazines like Interview, Dazed & Confused and Index, features lots of bare flesh. In one advert, a woman is lying on a couch wearing black lingerie as she watches a nude man grind a bottle of Svedka between her legs. In another, a nude woman holds a shot glass between her breasts as vodka is splashed into the glass and down her body.

Spirits Marque One has supported this advertising with high-profile celebrity parties where trendsetters from the worlds of music, art and even business mix. The company has also held erotic reading evenings featuring celebrities such as Alan Cummings and Sandra Bernhardt.

Now Cuvelier is planning to push the brand into the mainstream, which he hopes will propel Svedka past a million cases a year, and he also has plans for Svedka in Europe. "We will launch a new advertising campaign in the summer that will aim for a broader audience."

However, the sort of marketing used for Svedka so far has attracted criticism. Its "adult" content appears to be in clear breach of guidelines prohibiting the use of sex in selling alcohol. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (Discus) censured Svedka's advertising two months ago but could not force the withdrawal of the ads as Spirits Marque One is not a member. This has angered many in the drinks industry who feel that Spirits Marque One is trashing the industry's reputation in order to build a name for its brand.

Diageo spokesman, Stuart Kirby, said: "I'm a pretty liberal guy and I like ads that shock and excite, but their ads are gratuitous and very sexually revealing. They are pushing the envelope in a way we've never seen before. That hurts us as an industry. We are trying to preach a message that we are responsible but brands like Svedka are just trying to rip the bricks out of the road we are building. This hurts us all."

Cuvelier responds saying: "I respect Discus but our advertising is geared to an adult audience. We are targeting a very small group of people and most of America will not see the ads. I guess it's easy to pick on the small guy and these complaints are being blown out of proportion."

There is no doubt that Spirits Marque One has used clever marketing to build an identity for Svedka, and it has done very well at attracting the sort of trendsetters all brands are desperate to turn into consumers. But in doing so it has broken the rules that the drinks industry imposes on itself, and set itself apart from its peers in a less desirable way. Casting himself as an aspiring maverick, Cuvelier clearly feels this is a price worth paying but as the brand grows and moves into the mainstream, being at odds with the industry at large may become more problematic.