The drink is distilled, so is the message

Are you a virgin or a cognoscente? Meg Carter watches a vodka go nationwide with style

It is a delicate balancing act to appear local when you are in fact an international spirits brand, or national without either nationwide distribution or marketing. But through a combination of thinking globally and acting locally, Absolut Vodka has carried this off with aplomb.

Absolut has just launched its latest UK advertising campaign, devised by ad agency TBWA. A series of six ads with the now-familiar elliptical imagery and two-word strapline range from "Absolut Freedom", accompanying an image of a prison cell window bent into the shape of a bottle, to "Absolut Climate" beneath the same effect achieved on a weather map complete with fronts and isobars.

The style has been used by Absolut around the world for the past 16 years. However, this autumn's campaign, along with art and fashion sponsorships to be rolled out later in the year, marks a turning point for the brand: its phased roll-out throughout the UK.

Absolut Vodka was invented in Sweden in 1879, although it was not exported until 1979 when it launched in the US. The brand arrived in Britain four years later, but it was only once its US success was assured that the Swedish parent developed an international marketing plan for the brand. This is explained by Goran Lundqvist, president of The Absolut Company: "We strive for certain core values - perfection and clarity - in all our communications. Also, sophistication and wit."

"Absolut Perfection", the company's first ad created in 1981, is still the one most widely used today. "The challenge is to remain consistent yet fresh," Mr Lundqvist explains. One way in which this has been achieved is by stockpiling creative treatments run successfully in more developed markets. These can then be introduced into territories where the brand is less developed.

"There are basic ads used in every market to establish the brand. Then others, which are locally specific, evolve its positioning," he says. The more developed the market, the more lateral - and sophisticated - the marketing. In the US, for example, a series of recent ads in literary magazines included "absolute cummings".

In the UK, Absolut's advertising is "a complex proposition", explains Simon Turnbull, commercial director of Ideal Brands, which handles Absolut's UK marketing. "Absolut is positioned as a premium vodka, so we must persuade people to pay extra."

Secondly, there's the brand's association with art, design and fashion. The brand has a long tradition of commissioning artists whose work appears in its ad campaigns. It also has a sponsorship programme that involves staging its own exhibitions as well as getting involved in existing events where it can enjoy "a degree of creative involvement", explains Mr Turnbull.

Different approaches need to be tailored for different consumers within a single market. While the UK is a relatively developed territory for Absolut - and so can support more cryptic advertising - understanding of the brand within its potential market varies regionally.

To date, the UK strategy has involved focusing on two core target markets in London and the South-east: Absolut cognoscenti and Absolut virgins. The emphasis of Absolut's activities has been in clubs and restaurants; retail distribution tends to shadow this. The next challenge is to establish Absolut in other metropolitan areas.

"We have taken care to tailor our approach - you can't charge in with a 'Big in London' message'," Mr Turnbull says. The strategy has to be relevant for the local market - a little like the parent company's approach: "Power is very much devolved."

Mr Turnbull adds: "We're not a national brand - like Smirnoff. Nor do we want to be for the sake of being national. We are trying to target premium consumers, not necessarily existing vodka drinkers."

It is a similar story in other national markets. "Absolut is more to do with attitudes than with a specific demographic," he says. In fact, Absolut is targeting Jack Daniels, Becks beer and upmarket wine drinkers as much as those consuming rival premium brands like Stolichnaya or Smirnoff Black.

So far, however, the strategy appears to have worked. Global sales for Absolut (excluding Russia and CIS nations) rose by 5 per cent last year at a time when total spirits sales are declining. In Absolut's largest market, the US, sales to retailers were up 7 per cent; in Western Europe retail sales increased by 32 per cent.

However, absolute success will depend on Eastern Europe - where 80 per cent of the world's vodka is still consumed.

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