Susan Murray is charged with making Smirnoff vodka a truly internationa l taste. Roger Trapp reports on her cool style
Emerging from the lifts into a reception that closely resembles a cocktail bar is poor preparation for meeting the woman charged with managing the world's best known brand of vodka. While the area surrounding her somewhat spartan office is festooned with animal hides, and has a bottle buried in the floor, Susan Murray herself is a long way short of zany.

Calm and measured, and dressed in a dark suit, she explains that her role as president and chief executive of the Pierre Smirnoff is fundamentally about building the brand. Fortunately, since the company is now part of the IDV division of international drinks and food business Grand Metropolitan, that is not a task she must face alone.

Over the years, the company has built up such brands as Bailey's Irish Cream, Malibu and Burger King.

More important, at a time when the value companies put on their brands has been attracting increasing attention from a variety of directions, Smirnoff has also devised a means of assessing "brand equity". In the effort to maximise growth, the company has "put a lot of effort into how we go about monitoring that", explains Ms Murray.

Clearly, a key part of brand-building is keeping the name in the public eye. Since certain countries impose restrictions on spirits advertising, brands such as Smirnoff also make great use of promotions. In recent years, the company rated the second biggest spirits brand after Bacardi has concentrated much of its efforts on the Smirnoff international fashion awards, which next year will culminate with a final held in London and have a prize worth $25,000.

"Fashion fits really well in terms of the brand itself because it links in with the key target audience of 18-to-25-year-olds," explains Ms Murray. "It enables us to talk to them about a subject of interest to them. It reinforces the brand's positioning."

This year the sponsorship cost the company about pounds 1.5m, but Ms Murray calculates that it obtained about pounds 15m-worth of media exposure. As she points out, that is "a jolly good return on your investment, to say the least, as well as doing something that's valuable to young designers".

The words of marketing-speak trip off her tongue because she has spent her whole working life immersed in brand-building - with, as she puts it, "everything from nappies to coffee, desserts and batteries".

She claims to have always been interested in "the whole communications area - advertising, marketing and public relations" and started out in advertising working on such accounts as the old Milk Marketing Board and Flymo lawnmowers. The experience, she says, "just firmed up my views that marketing was exactly where I wanted to be".

As a result, she obtained a place on the rather competitive graduate training scheme at Colgate-Palmolive and began a trail through such household names as Kraft Foods and Duracell.

She arrived at IDV four years ago. Now aged 39, and feeling lucky that she found "the right path" early on, she took over the helm of Smirnoff in the summer of 1995.

Though Grand Met is very much a brands company, it is unlike her previous employers in not being the brand itself. But she insists that the emphasis remains the same - championing and developing the trademarks in the portfolio.

And since - in true Grand Met fashion - she is conscious of the history of the company's brands, she is also wary of trying to take the development too far. "The wrong sort of ads, the wrong sort of sponsorship, affect the perception," she says.

Smirnoff - which has worldwide sales of about 15 million cases a year - is generally reckoned to be a single product reputedly developed in the 1860s and then revived by descendants of its inventor shortly before the Second World War. But in recent years, the company has sought - in marketing parlance - to extend the brand to such spin-offs as Smirnoff Black, a premium vodka that is apparently best appreciated neat and frozen, and Smirnoff Mule, a mixture of vodka with ginger beer and lime that - though presented in a lager-type bottle - is, the company insists, definitely not aimed at the booming alcopop market.

At the same time, the growing interest in such combinations as vodka and cranberry juice - better known as "seabreeze" - is being answered by the introduction of various flavours.

And while Smirnoff is still comfortably the market leader around the world, Ms Murray is also aware of the growing presence of other Russian brands now that the barriers with eastern Europe have fallen and own-label makes are on the rise.

A key part of her response is the march into developing markets in such areas as the Far East and Central America. The company's advertisements - based around the slogan "pure thrill" - are deliberately witty and are designed to carry international appeal.

And though much has been said and written recently about the dangers of transnational marketing, Ms Murray claims that consumers of Smirnoff around the world have more similarities than differences. It is apparently a lifestyle thing, connected with people switching to international brands as they grow wealthier.

This is a trend that can also apply in developed markets, of course. The Chancellor's decision in last month's Budget to reduce the duty on spirits is - in Ms Murray's phrase - "a welcome move towards levelling the playing field with the rest of Europe". Accordingly, Smirnoff may figure a bit more prominently in the nation's Christmas shopping baskets. But the signs are that nothing is being taken for granted.

Ms Murray and her small international marketing team are constantly gauging drinking habits around the world and testing variations that might satisfy new desires. "I am fascinated as to how you can move it forward," she says