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Marketing the Rainbow
Absolut is a Swedish brand, created in 1879. Since March 2008, the company has been owned by the French firm Pernod Ricard, having been sold as a part of the V&S Group, which was owned by the Swedish government.
Absolut is the third largest brand of alcoholic spirits in the world after Bacardi and Smirnoff, and is marketed in 126 countries. The largest export market is the United States, where more than 40% of the imported vodka in the United States is Absolut.
In 2002 Forbes Magazine ranked Absolut the world’s number one luxury brand.
The creator was Lars Olsson Smith, a man they called the “King of Vodka”, whose portrait is still featured on the medallion of every Absolut bottle. In 1850, when Lars Olsson Smith was fourteen, he already controlled one-third of all the vodka sold in this traditional vodka-producing country. In 1879 he introduced his masterpiece - an invention that 100 years later would put his face in bars and living rooms as far as 20,000 miles from Stockholm - “Absolut rent Bränvin” (absolutely pure vodka). With an intense interest in quality, Lars Olsson Smith couldn't stand lesser products and was known to organize boycotts against any outlet distributing what he considered inferior vodka. He became enormously wealthy, and lived like the king he was. He even owned a water closet before the real King did, and legend has it that the King of Sweden paid regular visits to Lars Olsson Smith’s house just to use the toilet.
Unfortunately, Lars Olsson Smith’s life took many a turn, and he died penniless. To this day though, his high standards help to set Absolut apart, which is why you’ll still find him, casting a watchful eye, on each and every bottle.
The American market
Absolut was introduced in the USA in 1979. The aim was high: the American market was not only the biggest in the Western world, but also the most competitive. At first, the distributors in the USA weren’t as enthusiastic as Absolut’s production and marketing people. A typical reaction was, “Who would buy a Swedish vodka?” Carillon Importers Ltd., in New York saw good reason: some people don’t want to follow the crowd. Some people appreciate quality more than others.
After the first bottle was sold in Boston, New York was next. Then came Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco… In just six short years, Absolut was number one among imported vodkas in the USA. The country that consumes 60% of the Western world’s vodka was convinced.
The vodka is still produced in Sweden, and the 450,000 bottles produced every day are shipped from the small Åhus harbor to consumers all over the world. And now, 25 years later, Absolut is a household name in quite a few parts of the world. They won over 350 awards with the bottle campaign.
Back in 1978, before they even started looking for an American distributor, they decided to develop a bottle that would show the world that Absolut stood for something different. The result is without a doubt one of the key factors for the brand’s success. The bottle has been the centerpiece in all those advertisements and is very well known, almost an icon.
Much of Absolut's fame is due to its long-running advertising campaign, created by advertising agency TBWA, based on this distinctive bottle shape. Having started around 1980 with photographer Steven Bronstein, and with more than 1,500 ads, the ad campaign is reportedly the longest running ever.
The ads frequently feature an Absolut bottle-shaped object in the center and a title "Absolut ____." at the bottom. The original idea for the campaign came from South African art director Geoff Hayes who reported that the idea for the first Absolut ad, Absolut Perfection, came to him in the bathtub. A number of art directors and copywriters added to the campaign in the early years. The Absolut advertising and marketing campaign has won over 350 awards over the years. Tens of thousands of people around the world collect Absolut ads.
Global PR Manager Kristina Hagbard: “we always strive to give something to think about - this ensures that our message takes up more time and mental space in the mind of viewers than something screamed directly into their ears. We believe in continuity – combined with variety. That’s why we’ve been working with the same advertising concept, in all types of media, for twenty-five years. It’s this perfect balance between stability and surprise that has given us the freedom to experiment, explore and express the brand image to the fullest.”
In 1985 Michel Roux, President of Carillon Importers in charge of the American distribution, commissioned Andy Warhol to paint a picture of the Absolut bottle. Warhol, who was enthralled by the artfulness of the bottle, was happy to oblige. He was soon followed by Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and other well-known artists.
The world’s most famous designers make fashion pieces for Absolut - Tom Ford and Jean-Paul Gaultier are some of the most recent friends in fashion.
Kristina Hagbard: “Online is an important vehicle for our communication towards our consumers, LGBT or non LGBT. We do develop both campaign sites, blogs, interactive banners, social media components, Facebook applications etc. to be where our consumers are.”
The LGBT market
In 1981 Absolut starting showing an interest in the LGBT consumer. Based on their own research, they established that this group could be considered trendsetters, and they wanted to use this trendy demographic to reach a wider audience.
This approach was also in line with the initial statement that “some people don’t want to follow the crowd”. Ads were placed in The Advocate and After Dark.
Those first Absolut ads were later followed with events in bars, donations to charities and causes, outdoor advertising and, more recently, sponsorship of a TV series on the Logo cable channel, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Absolut became the “first big brand to commit to and pursue the market by being the first continuously present major brand in gay media,” said Michael Wilke.
Since 1981, over USD 31 million has been spent on marketing to the LGBT community, in print advertisements – but most notably in sponsoring public and private events and the presence in many Pride parades.
Kristina Hagbard: ”The reason for Absolut to engage in LGBT marketing is not for political reasons, we don’t take political stands but we believe in all peoples’ rights to be who they are and express what they want. It is a question of freedom. We believe in diversity and individuality. We do not believe in labels and prejudice.”
This was also the recurring theme in their marketing activities, and reflected in a special website: www.absolut.com/nolabel (no longer active). The no-label philosophy has also been used in ads.
Absolut was one of the first consumer brands to openly embrace the gay community and view its members as important and desirable consumers of its product. Widely regarded as one of the most venerable brands in the gay market, Absolut has had a consistent presence for almost 30 years gracing the back covers of gay magazines years before any other major advertiser.
In 1981, Absolut placed its first ad (Absolut PERFECTION) in The Advocate. Back then, this was something considered a bold and pioneering move from Absolut.
In 1989, Absolut took on the founding sponsorship of GLAAD's annual presentations of honors known as the GLAAD Media Awards. In support, the Absolut GLAAD campaign was rolled out in key markets.
In 1992, Absolut SPADA was introduced, a campaign featuring the work of designer David Spada - who created the iconic Gay Pride rings - and who was the first gay-specific creative from Absolut. Non-gay readers were not likely to know the significance of the rainbow colored rings or the artist.
In 2000, Absolut introduced two gay themed creatives with two different Tom’s involved. First out was Tom Ford, the openly gay designer of Gucci. The Absolut TOM FORD ad featured the face of a woman partially obscured by the fingers of her left hand; the fake fingernail on her ring finger is in an Absolut shape. The ad was published in Vogue Magazine in the US.
Absolut TOM, the fall collection of Tom of Finland, a clothing extension of the gay artist, followed that year. This was the first time that Absolut was linked so closely to the sexuality of “homosexuality”: the Tom of Finland brand created its reputation on sexually explicit artwork. The fashion designs built on this reputation.
Note: in 2014 Finnish postage stamps with images of Tom of Finland became a worldwide bestseller.
Yet for all its recognition in the gay market and long term presence, Absolut has only done a handful of truly gay-specific ads. In 2003, in one such ad, film canisters are stacked to form the distinctive shape of the Absolut bottle. The canisters are labeled with the titles of gay films. The caption reads " Absolut Achievement". The ad appeared in gay film festivals sponsored by the brand. The brand is a long supporter of numerous LGBT film festivals including Frameline San Francisco Film Festival (1994), OUTFEST Los Angeles Film Festival (1995), The Miami LGBT Film festival and many others.
2003 also meant the introduction of the most direct gay effort so far from Absolut. The Absolut OUT outdoor advertisement featured a three-dimensional series of nine "gay closets" - featuring such things as a gay pride flag, a lavender door covered in a shoe rack, and other items. The billboard appeared in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood in June and in New York in October during National Gay History month. The billboard on Lafayette St. at Bleeker St. is a literal play on the expression “out of the closet,” touching on the gay theme with a certain New York irony – the building behind the sign is a large, well-known storage facility where New Yorkers can rent closet space to store their stuff. Through live and online auctions associated with the ads, consumers were provided with the opportunity to purchase pieces of gay history from the closets of some of the world’s biggest celebrities.
In 2007, the Commercial Closet Association’s annual Corporate AdRespect Honors recognized Absolut for excellence in inclusive portrayals of LGBT individuals in their advertising.
The famous rainbow bottle
In 2008, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Rainbow Flag as symbol of the LGBT movement, Absolut released a special rainbow colored bottle (with the correct 6 bands, instead of the usual 7). The website Absolut Colors was launched to invite consumers to share their coming out story: ‘You came out. Now share your story with the world’.
There was also a limited edition cocktail book: The Absolut COLORS Cocktail Collection.
In An Absolut World
In April 2008 - within the framework of their “In An Absolut World” campaign - Absolut released a new gay themed advertising print execution that plays upon a gay male stereotype from way back: In an ABSOLUT World All Men Are Created 'Equal'.
As with all stereotypes this one is for most men sadly wrong, but that does not mean the joke does not work well in the gay market. It plays upon the size queen stereotype in a way that laughs along with the gay consumer, not at them - and that's important.
Apart from "Ruler," the ad "Stadium" engages on the issue of gay marriage when one half of a gay couple "pops" the question during a sports outing.
Jeffrey Moran, Director of Public Relations and Events of Absolut followed up with words of both support and recognition: "As a long-time supporter of the gay and lesbian community, we acknowledge that you can't simply speak to gay men and lesbians as consumers, but instead need to make real connections to their lives which we believe we are achieving with our new creative executions. As a company, we respect gay men and lesbians not simply in advertising messages, but behind the scenes as well. We're not gay-washing here."
-->I think it is this statement that lies at the core of successful gay marketing.
Absolut also said the campaign visually answers the questions "what if everything in the world were approached with the same ideals that Absolut approaches vodka?"
John Nash, President of Moon City, the agency responsible for the execution of these gay ads explains, "These two new visions bring a perspective to the 'In An ABSOLUT World' campaign that was inspired by a gay point of view, but can easily be appreciated by many people. Gay men and women have long felt connected to the artistic legacy of the brand and these new ads leverage that connection by making the brand relevant in a smart, personal way for gay men and lesbians today."
Humor can be a difficult trick to master in advertising targeting a minority group where the brand is an outsider seeking to position itself in the market on the inside track. For the core Absolut vodka brand of consumers - the club kids and style conscious market perhaps - this deliberately funny and provocative approach works well.
Absolut commissioned openly gay artists such as Andy Warhol, Nereyda Garcia Ferraz, David Spada, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf to create ads that reflect their talents.
This ad by Keith Haring is typical of his style when he was being non-sexual. But unless a person was familiar with Haring, they may not know his sexuality.
Absolut sponsors numerous major LGBT events in the US annually. They include: One Mighty Weekend (Gay Disney), The Queer Lounge at Sundance, Broadway Bares, The Gay Games, The White Party Miami, Joining Hearts Atlanta, Ascension Fire Island and Night of 1,000 Gowns. They also support LGBT Pride events annually, not just in the US but in all major markets.
From very gay themed "Absolut Mardi Gras" campaigns in the Australian gay and lesbian market, through to strategic sponsorships and high profile in-venue sales promotions at lesbian and gay market venues, Absolut has been one of the brands many gays and lesbians have grown up with.
They observe: "We provide guidelines to local markets on how to implement and activate the global campaigns we develop, however to be relevant on a local level and also fit in with local needs, the local markets can adapt and activate the campaign in different ways and choose to select which parts of the campaign elements to activate. Of course it is important that the overall campaign message is not diluted to ensure we send the same message globally.”
In 2009 I personally attended a fundraiser in the Hollywood Hills, for LGBT youth helpline The Trevor Project. It was a pool party in a private residence, with around 200 guests. Absolut sponsored generously, and in many flavours. So, even with a limited exposure like that, Absolut does not hesitate to invest in goodwill.
Kristina Hagbard: “before developing a new initiative, we do qualitative research, both via our own sources such as reference groups and via research institutes. We measure the ROI via different tools, but when it comes to LGBT initiatives, the most important measure is the brand image, which we measure via a brand health tracker tool.
Other than that, the effects of the campaigns of the past decades are difficult to measure in pure sales figures. Absolut maintains that perception and brand preference effects are strong, and they continue, unwaveringly, with their campaigns in both advertising and sponsoring.
Absolut has also experienced some downsides of their marketing strategy. LGBT issues are very sensitive in some countries and it can have a negative effect on the brand if the brand is perceived as a "gay friendly" brand.
Kristina: “The effects we have noted so far are relatively moderate. It is more a question about some negative emails. For Absolut it is nonetheless very important to continuously show our support and commitment on a global basis.”
In 2011 Absolut celebrated “30 years of going out and coming out” with a special ad. The campaign included online and outdoor ads, events and a presence in social media like Facebook. A print ad appeared in gay and lesbian publications like The Advocate, Instinct and Out, as well as in two general-market magazines, Vanity Fair and Vogue. About the picture on the left, a blogger observed: "The art direction and what photographer David LaChapelle did is borderline genius. From the subjects photographed (i.e. Amanda Lepore, unicorns, you know, the usual) to the placement of everything, to the all around fabulousness of this (yes, that really is the only word to describe this) it comes together to create one breathtaking image. One big ol' gay celebration of living life and having fun, out and proud!"
Two interesting examples of how they used commercials: a mother speaking to her son in general terms, where subtitles show what they really mean ("You're gay") and Pandora Boxx, a contestant from RuPaul's Drag Race, doing a stand up called Cocktails Perfected ("Absolut Bloody").
The budget was estimated at more than USD 4 million.
“Absolut set the bar for virtually every company speaking to the LGBT consumer,” said Todd Evans, president and chief executive at Rivendell Media in Mountainside, N.J., which handled media services for Absolut in 1981 - and still does.
Mr. Evans recalled how Absolut not only bought ad pages in magazines like The Advocate, but also bought back covers at a time when “we couldn’t get anyone” to take such highly visible positions. “And Absolut locked them up for two years,” he added.
Kristina Hagbard: ABSOLUT will continously develop initiatives targeted to the LGBT community on a global level, that can also be activated in local markets, but will also in all its communication ensure relevance for our consumers, of which the LGBT community is an important part. Supporting the LGBT community is part of the brand soul and support our belief in a diverse, respectful and colorful world. We have a long term committment.
Note: this case study is based on desk research and a personal interview with Kristina Hagbard in 2010, at that time Global PR Manager of Absolut.