Absolut considers TV advertising as competition heats up

Enhanced competition is heating up the vodka sector like a few quick martinis on an empty stomach, and Absolut is pondering TV advertising for the first time as a result, according to Holly Wyatt, national marketing manager of the spirits division at Toronto-based Maxxium Canada, which distributes the brand.

Enhanced competition is heating up the vodka sector like a few quick martinis on an empty stomach, and Absolut is pondering TV advertising for the first time as a result, according to Holly Wyatt, national marketing manager of the spirits division at Toronto-based Maxxium Canada, which distributes the brand. ‘We’re thinking about TV…[but] we’re not quite there yet in terms of creative executions,’ she says, adding that it isn’t likely to happen in the next year. ‘We’re not going to do a generic 30-second spot, so it takes us a bit longer to figure things out sometimes.’

In other global arenas, Stockholm-based Absolut has already poured cash into what Wyatt describes as ‘pseudo-TV’ advertising. ‘They’ve gone into theatre advertising, with trailers. So they’re getting into the broadcast medium, but not truly television at this point.’

Certainly, the premium vodka brand, which is 15 years old in Canada, has witnessed the entry of many newcomers in the last few years, according to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). ‘In terms of new products, what we’ve seen is brands in the premium [$21.25 to $27.95 for a 750 ml bottle], deluxe [$32.95 to $39.95] and flavoured categories,’ says LCBO spokesperson Chris Layton. ‘That’s also where we’re anticipating growth will be in the future.’

Much is at stake, as vodka represents the second largest spirits category in Canada, gobbling up 21.9% of consumer dollars spent on booze in 2001, with a 1.5% increase in share since 1997, according to Ottawa-based Spirits Canada. (Canadian whisky is the top seller with 25.4% of market share, but that number has slipped by 2.4% in the past five years.)

According to the LCBO, vodka sales climbed by 8% between January 2001 and 2002 in Ontario. ‘That’s due to the popularity of mixed drinks like martinis, which have recently been re-established,’ says Layton. The fastest-growing segments in vodka are premium and deluxe, which saw 10% and 65% improvements in the last year respectively, compared to 3% for standard brands. Flavours have also become all the rage since their arrival on the Canadian scene about five years ago; their sales soared by double digits in 2000, according to Winnipeg-based Bar & Beverage magazine.

But Wyatt points out that Absolut, which still leads the premium category, followed by the brands Polar Ice and Stolichnaya, has an advantage: it actually backs its new flavours with advertising. ‘A lot of other brands show up on the shelves, without the support,’ she says.

That wasn’t the case with Absolut Mandrin, which was introduced in 2000. The company’s marketing mix was composed of outdoor, print and radio; it created a buzz by displaying a Mandrin orange in an execution with the words ‘Absolut sighting,’ then introduced the new product in a later instalment. Last year, Mandrin led in sales of the flavoured vodkas.

Along with the boost in selection on retail shelves and at watering holes, there has also been a hike in alcohol advertising on the tube, according to Spirits Canada, which reported that the ad spend for booze was up 40% for the 12 months ending November 2001 versus the same period a year earlier. It also found that television spending more than doubled in 2000 and that 70% of ad dollars were swallowed by that medium.

Wyatt believes the trend boils down to a shift in focus from print or outdoor to TV. ‘In terms of sheer impressions, they’re generating more,’ she says. ‘I would say we’re probably looking at a more mass appeal, as opposed to a more targeted approach as in the past.’

Absolut, she adds, would not be so mass-oriented, even if it did turn to the small screen as a medium. Instead, the 23-year-old vodka brand, (first introduced in the U.S. in 1979), would continue to speak to its niche market – urban and sociable art enthusiasts. Such a specific approach would help it combat any new rivals, she says. ‘I think the key for Absolut is to stay true to the brand, in terms of always being unique and not necessarily becoming one of the many.’

So far, the company has been astutely consistent in its messaging, even on a global scale. When it first arrived on American soil, a campaign depicted the chic Absolut bottle with the words, ‘Absolut perfection.’ That tag is still used today. ‘I don’t think we’re at the point where we’ll walk away from the bottle,’ says Wyatt. ‘At one point, maybe, but not yet.’

Eva Kempe-Forsber, the company’s Stockholm-based global VP of marketing, attributes the brand’s growth – in 1979, Absolut sold 10,000 nine-litre cases compared to 7.3 million in 125 markets in 2000 – to a campaign consisting of one part continuity, one part creativity. ‘I think it [helps that] our campaign doesn’t go out of style,’ she explains. ‘We don’t do lifestyle advertising. It’s always the product that’s the hero in our communications…That, combined with developments to constantly renew the campaign, has been one of the factors of our success.’

In part, she adds, uniformity across borders is achievable because Absolut uses the same agency worldwide. TBWA is responsible for both traditional and grassroots efforts, while a public relations firm handles PR in each country, including the Toronto-based Courtney Group in Canada. ‘[Having one agency] is one way to ensure that we speak with the same voice,’ says Kempe-Forsber. ‘The advertising isn’t developed in that many markets either – it’s just a few places.’

Currently, Kempe-Forsber reports that Absolut has turned its attention to new media. ‘We have waited to do that, because now we feel that the technology is there to be more creative,’ she says.

In Canada, there are plans to promote Absolut’s three-month-old site, www.absolutdigitalart.com, heavily this year. ‘That’s our biggest focus in terms of where we’re spending our ad dollars, from a media standpoint,’ points out Wyatt, who says print ads endorsing the site will run next summer in magazines like Shift and the soon-to-be-resurrected Saturday Night.

The site invites both digital and non-digital artists to submit work – if chosen they are featured online – and corresponds to the brand’s overall association to the art world. It also fills a void existing in the Canadian magazine industry, according to Wyatt. ‘There’s not a whole lot of what we would feel are good matches in terms of publications,’ she says, adding that Absolut buys space in InStyle and Maxim south of the border. ‘[Our need to] hit that audience effectively and efficiently was a reason for going to the Web site.’

Besides print, the portal is also being introduced through universities and colleges that offer digital arts programs, as well as through arts events across Canada. (For more information on Absolut sponsorships, see Finding the Absolut Fit on page 32.) For instance, agency representatives were on hand to present absolutdigitalart.com at a recent new media exhibit in Montreal. ‘The site is something we want to use to build the brand,’ says Wyatt. ‘It’s just a matter of doing it uniquely, in true Absolut spirit.’