Marketing the Rainbow
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"A brand born from the rainbow"
Stolichnaya, better known as 'Stoli', is a vodka made of wheat and rye grain. The name means "from the capital". Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union the ownership of Stolichnaya has been disputed between the Russian state-owned company FKP Soyuzplodoimport and SPI Group, a private company founded and owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler. The Russian state-owned Stolichnaya is bottled from artesian water from the Russian city of Samara in the Kaliningrad region - for the Russian and the Benelux markets. SPI produces Stolichnaya in Latvia, using Latvian water but alcohol from a distillery in Tambov, Russia. The wheat comes from a Russian region called Raduga, which means Rainbow in Russian. This means the brand was truly 'born from the rainbow'.
There is confusion about the actual birth date of Stolichnaya vodka. However, there is a trademark registration dated 1938, which is sometimes quoted as birth date.
The SPI's Stoli changed its label from “Russian Vodka” to “Premium Vodka” in 2010.
And then hell broke loose.
In response to anti-gay laws enacted by the Russian government in July 2013, columnist Dan Savage joined groups like Queer Nation, gay bars and clubs and called for a boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas. A number of American and British gay bars held public demonstrations of pouring Stoli into the gutter.
SPI released a statement expressing their opposition to Russia's anti-gay policies, stating that, "Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be, a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community." The company also changed its social media pages and website home page to feature rainbow colors. A PR team got information out to CNN, the beginning of the education process that would eventually turn things around. In time, the Huffington Post, The Advocate, New York Times, Sirius XM, BuzzFeed and NPR came to Stoli’s aid. A New York Times reporter even traveled to Lativa to validate the production process.
They further announced that in response to the boycott the company would be making a financial donation to an unspecified group working on behalf of Russian LGBT activists fighting against the Russian government’s anti-gay policies." The CEO of the company also insisted that the company is "not a Russian company", even though the company operates a distillery in Russia, several hundred of its 2,500 employees are in Russia and it obtains its ingredients from Russia.
Alcohol beverage brands have always had a keen interest in the gay market, perhaps even more so the vodkas. Absolut was the first to target (and support) the LGBT community, starting in 1981 - and has been unwavering ever since. Californian brand SKYY has done so - successfully - since 1992. So when Stoli wanted to enter this market, they were up against some heavy competition. It was almost like a bidding war: who is the strongest supporter of LGBTs and their rights?
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and to honor the uprising’s semi centennial, Stoli released a new, limited edition bottle named “Spirit of Stonewall”. Sales of the bottle helped raise funds for the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative. "We are thrilled that Stoli is continuing its long-standing tradition of supporting the LGBT community by working with us," said the charity's President, CEO & Co-Founder, Stacy Lentz.
The design for the bottle came from Lisa Marie Thalhammer, an award-winning visual artist and herself a member of the LGBT community. Thalhammer is perhaps best known for the iconic 13-color rainbow "LOVE" mural located on Blagden Alley in Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood. She employed a mural design, one which incorporated certain motifs of LGBT imagery, such as hands and protest signs at the corner of Gay and Christopher Streets, a high heel shoe representing the transgender activists who began the 1969 uprising, a "LIBERATION" sign with three gender symbols, and a peace sign and protest fist holding a rainbow energy ribbon that swirls between fingers, bringing the community together.
2019 Pride: Stonewall
Carte Blanche is a photographic programme, aimed at discovering talented emerging photographers and artists. Since 2017, it has been promoting the relationship between students and the art and photography world. For the 2018 competition one of the finalists (unfortunately unknown who) made this billboard.
"Stoli celebrates Pride with a colourful billboard featuring its range of vodka flavours. Behind the billboard is a water tank with high-pressure jets that periodically spray recycled rainwater upwards. When light hits the wall of mist, it produces an actual rainbow."
Shortly after the boycott, Stoli announced a three-year-partnership with the LA Gay & Lesbian Centre by
donating $300,000. One pundit observed: "What a crazy world we’re living in… An advocacy group practically blackmails private companies over a decision of a foreign, sovereign country. Then those private companies accept the blackmail to avoid losing market-share. Then they turn the table, start supporting those blackmailing advocacy groups, portray themselves as champions of whatever cause and PAY $300,000 within a “programme” of over three years. Depressing. Welcome to the brave new world."
John Esposito, president of the Stoli Group USA, said: “Our position at Stoli is clear. We stand with the LGBT community in the fight for equality, and are proud to be working with the LA Gay & Lesbian Centre to make our joint vision possible.”
In 2018 Stoli Vodka announced the launch of the new advertising campaign, "Whatever drives you, make it loud and clear," today. The video component was scored by Oscar-Winning composer Hans Zimmer and Emmy/BAFTA Nominee Lorne Balfe.
The campaign takes a 360-approach, incorporating television, digital, social and print to reveal Stoli®’s unapologetic message – whatever drives you, make it bold, make it last, make it loud and clear. The print campaign featured Frankie and Jackie, two ladies who are engaged.
Within the ‘Raising the Bar’ initiative, and following the Loud and Clear campaign that launched a week earlier, Stoli stated: "Raising the Bar celebrates individuals and organizations central to advancing diversity and originality within the LGBT community". One of the products in the campaign was a Limited Edition Harvey Milk Tribute Bottle, honoring Harvey Milk as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership, coalition building and dedication to equality, and celebrating 40 years since he was sworn into office as the first openly gay elected official in the state of California. The art was by Paraguayan street artist Oz Montania and the bottle gained praise and fame.
2017: Raising the bar
In 2017 Stoli announced Raising the Bar, "a platform dedicated to reinforcing the brand's 35-year commitment to the LGBT equality movement by championing individuals and organizations central to advancing diversity and originality within the community". The campaign kicked off just as the brand closed out the fourth Stoli® Key West Cocktail Classic, the world's largest annual LGBT bartending competition, which became a pillar of this dedicated initiative.
This campaign was a 13-city effort to select a the "most original people" to match it with the "most original vodka."
However, this campaign had very unfortunate timing, as it coincided with a “Dump Stoli” boycott. At the same time Stoli was working to launch the Stoli Group U.S.A. in America - an offshoot of parent SPI Group - to better market the spirit here and trying to ramp up staff.
As the LA Times wrote, "The problem with the North American boycott, known on Twitter as the #dumpstoli campaign, is that the vodka is distilled in Latvia and owned by a Luxembourg company controlled by a Russian billionaire driven into exile for his opposition to just the kind of official prejudice exhibited in the new law targeting gays."The Most Original Stoli Guy was a competition, a challenge that went to gay bars all over the country to find one gay dude to become Stoli’s national LGBT ambassador. Philly student Billy Cavallo won the competition. The win earned him a chance to be Stoli's national LGBT ambassador, a trip to Los Angeles to appear in an Andrew Christian video and solo photo shoot, an interview with Queerty, a
The brand had a lot of work to do to negate the effects of the (wrongful?) boycott. One campaign was to sponsor an LGBT event for Gaysi - The Desi Gay community in Mumbai. This was done with the new slogan: "All people are equal. All vodkas are not." Stoli had been the official 'pouring partner' with the Gaysi since 3 years. In 2015 their plan was on hosting a series of Queer Trivia nights in Mumbai. Stoli bottles were given as prize to the winning team along with the Stoli playing cards.
The same image was used before in a print campaign in the US, and at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
In celebration of LGBTQ History Month and National Coming Out Day, Stoli Serves Pride - the platform that had been used for the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic for 7 years in partnership with the City of Key West and the Key West Business Guild - got support from a video by #1 Billboard Dance Music artist Debby Holiday. She wrote and performed “Stoli Serves Pride”, while her clip featured cameos by dozens of LGBT+ stars and allies, representing organizations and individuals who exemplify what it means to SERVE PRIDE.
When same-sex marriage was legalized in the UK in 2014, Stoli celebrated with the special Happily Ever After cocktail. Similarly, they rejoiced when SCOTUS made gay marriage the law of the land in the US.
Fun fact: overwhelmingly on Instagram, the best-performing content was pictures of bottles. That wasn’t true on Facebook or Twitter, where bottleshots got decent engagement, but other posts like those on marriage equality, for example, led.
Of course it is easy to celebrate, but I could not find any campaigning on the part of Stoli, before the equality was achieved.
A new website, HeroesRaisingtheBar.com, launched alongside the program encompassed all of Stoli's LGBT activities from events and partner programming to the newly minted "Heroes of Diversity" video series. This series looked to inspire action by rolling out interviews exploring the personal journeys of extraordinary people who became community leaders, including:
- Twiggy Pucci Garcon, ballroom runway legend, actor and diversity educator
- Laith Ashley, transgender model and entertainer
- Stuart Milk, global equality leader
Stoli was proud sponsor of the Sydney Mardi Gras in 2000. This was not the first time. Sandy Mollison, brand manager at United Distillers for Stolichnaya, said that Stolichnaya had been part of the gay and lesbian community for 15 years, and has been increasing its visibility since then, mainly through sponsorship and advertising involvement with the Mardi Gras and the Aids Trust of Australia."We have been involved with the Mardi Gras since 1996, and have been major sponsors for the past three years," Mollison says. "We do special advertising each year, but our marketing to the community is not just based on that. You have to be aware that being seen just to cash in on the pink dollar when the Mardi Gras comes around is dangerous for your brand. We have to make sure that our involvement with the Mardi Gras and the Aids Trust is an opportunity to put something back into and support the gay community, where our sales are really very strong."
As a key sponsor in 2000, United Distillers paid $40,000 in cash to Mardi Gras organisers and designed a limited edition of Lemon Ruski bottles. Mollison says the 144,000 specially designed bottles sold out during the three-week Mardi Gras festival. "The special bottles were fantastically received. I think one reason was the overtness with which we were willing to stand up and say so obviously that we support the Mardi Gras and the gay community, and were providing a percentage of the profits to the Aids Trust."A rather weird, fragmented, pop-art clip was released to promote Lemon Ruski.
This article was last updated Jan 15, 2022.
Although Stoli's commitment to the community reportedly started around 1992, no traces of early sponsoring or advertisement can be found. However, Edge Media observed: "A brand that puts ideology into action".
It is the only brand I know that appointed an "LGBTQ+ Global Ambassador". In 2010, Patrik Gallineaux was given the opportunity to be his fabulous self and fully dedicate his attention to representing the brand to the community, which he has done with energy, ambition and originality. Patrik: "I never thought I would enter the corporate world, coming from a background of theatre and dance.
But when Stoli approached me with the opportunity to work on behalf of their efforts to celebrate diversity and play a stronger role in work for equality, I decided to give it a 6-month try. In this period I found that I could be myself within this environment - I could not thrive any other way - and so I was able to continue to proudly represent the brand as an authentic supporter of my community as LGBTQ+ Ambassador". 12 years later we can say: the rest is history. The strategy even survived the pandemic.
"Stoli is working hard to celebrate the past, to educate the present and make changes for the future," says Gallineaux. In the period 2012-2017 alone, Stoli donated more than $1,000,000 and offered product and on-site event support to over 30 national and local LGBT and ally associations.
A special thanks to Patrik Gallineaux for his feedback, input and enthusiasm.
2020/2021 also saw the premiere of a global LGBTQ+ tribute bottle, a return to the partnership with and support of the Harvey Milk Foundation (HMF) as a “second-in-a-series” follow-up to the 2018 release. The art was again by Paraguayan street artist Oz Montania, and featured Harvey leading the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. The campaign benefited the work for global equality of the HMF. The bottle was released in 14 countries around the world (including plans for Australian Mardi Gras 2022, a 'look back' of 25 years). Patrik shared an early creative piece he developed.
Stoli Harvey Milk is a part of the Stoli Serves Pride brand platform.
Fun fact: every self-respecting gay can quote at least 10 lines or expressions from the epic TV-series Absolutely Fabulous. One of the ten should be "Stoli-Bolli", a cocktail where Bollinger champagne is spiked with Stolichnaya vodka.
Click here for the recipe.
The original series started in 1992, but the mention of Stoli was not a paid product placement. It did contribute to the branding of the drink among gays as 'fabulous'. The pictures of Patsy drinking Stolichnaya were used in countless memes.
The collaboration was also celebrated at London Pride 2016, when AbFab The Movie was released. Both stars (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) as well as plenty lookalikes were present.
The video was shot in Ukraine, and showcases real people celebrating their unique identities and what drives them. The footage makes it “Loud and Clear” that they are fully embracing their style, passions and beliefs with conviction.
$500 gift certificate for Andrew Christian articles and a trip to Key West. A special co-branded running shorts was released as well.
When asked "How did your friends and family react when you were crowned The Most Original Stoli Guy?", he answered "The best reaction was from my father who came to support me and kept screaming, 'I MADE HIM!'"
Another collaboration exists with The Legacy Project, a Chicago-based cultural and educational non-profit dedicated to researching and promoting the contributions LGBT+ people have made to world history and culture. Stoli dedicated two plate honors: one for Ugandan activist David Kato and another for Sylvia Rivera. Stoli previously worked with The Legacy Project and the San Diego LGBTQ Visitors Center to bring The Legacy Wall - an interactive digital exhibit - to the Hillcrest Community's pop-up LGBTQ History Museum in 2018 and continues to work with the Legacy Project to widen the visibility of the organization's vital work.
Other initiatives have included producing the first-ever US military sanctioned Fleet Week event for LGBT+ military service members in 2016 in San Francisco, lead support for the creation of the National LGBT Wall of Honor at New York’s Stonewall Inn, and a decade of support for Centerlink, the network of LGBT+ community centers.
However, Stolichnaya, made a blunder. Amid heated community debate about preventing heterosexuals from buying tickets to the party, a promotion organized in a straight pub in Perth offered two free tickets to the event as a prize. By coincidence, two lesbians won, but the gay media were filled with letters from people incensed by Stolichnaya's poor judgement.
In subsequent years, presence was seen at several Pride festivals around the world, like Tel Aviv, London, New York, San Francisco, Key West, San Diego, Miami, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago.
In 2021 Stoli debuted its Liberate Your Spirit campaign, a platform "to liberate voices around the world to highlight issues that can be overcome if we all pull together to make the world a better place, inclusive of equality, peace, and helping to heal the climate crisis.” The series of portraits includes that of transgender model Teddy Quinlivan, "Haters Gonna Hate, Teddy's Gonna Love".