NEWS ANALYSIS: Battle of the vodka brands hots up

As iconic Russian brand Stolichnaya and Diageo-backed market leader Smirnoff prepare to launch PR blitzes, Ian Hall looks into how established vodka brands are using PR to outsmart an increasing number of challengers.

When Sputnik Vodka offered consumers the chance to experience a 'genuine Russian kidnap', the AK-47s brandished by the models participating in the stunt stopped short of firing off real bullets.

But last month's stunt - devised by Weber Shandwick's youth marketing team Slam, for Sputnik's UK distributor Russian Vodka House - can be seen as the opening salvo in a year set to see vodka brands deploying a swathe of PR activity to increase sales.

Brands such as market leader Smirnoff, plus Finlandia and Stolichnaya, have all switched PR agencies recently (see chart). PR managers on each brand were last week putting the finishing touches to their plans for the year ahead, with each vodka seeking to strike the right balance between trade and consumer PR.

The 'off-trade' vodka market (sales in supermarkets, corner-shops, etc.) has grown by six per cent in the past year and is dominated by Diageo's Smirnoff Red (21 per cent) and Glens Vodka (14 per cent), according to market research firm AC Nielsen.

But it is in the scrap for approval in the 'on-trade' - bars and clubs - where the plethora of less well-known start-up brands, such as Sputnik, are being forced to deploy increasingly novel tactics to grow the number of outlets stocking their label.

Jack Hibberd, news editor at wine and spirit weekly Harpers, argues that despite what the PROs espouse about the difference in quality of their vodkas, 'there is very little in terms of flavour so image is all-important and PR plays a part in that'.

Hibberd adds that, in his view, vodka market PR activity - as opposed to, for example, advertising - is most noticeable among the 'small, niche players' that fight to win the approval of independent bar managers who will make the all-important decision to actually stock the product.

Slam account manager Dan Pinch says Sputnik's trade PR campaign initially targeted just '100 bar managers within the M25', before moving on to cities such as Manchester and Leeds.

He describes the target audience as 'young, working long hours - and very brand-savvy. This is where the competition (among vodka brands) really is,' he adds, pointing out that many bar managers have become 'bored' by the glut of vodka brands that have entered the UK market.

Another challenger brand is Eskalony, which contains flakes of 22-carat gold and has been represented in the UK by CoalitionTotal.Communication for the past two years.

CoalitionTotal MD Ashley Mann says his agency's PR work has been 'event-based' and that he has even recruited a former barman as a full-time staffer to build a database of bars for which his agency provides 'marketing services' in return for their stocking of Eskalony.

Although Mann agrees that central London style bars are the focus of the activity, he estimates there are around 400 bars nationwide that Eskalony, and other vodka brands CoalitionTotal promotes, are keen to penetrate.

Having succeeded in winning bar managers' approval, consumer PR work can then help achieve what the trade refers to as 'branded bar calls' - customers asking for a brand by name, and not generically - which is what Hibberd describes as 'the Holy Grail for premium spirits marketers'.

One brand that doesn't struggle in respect of consumer awareness is Smirnoff, which is being promoted by Splendid Communications, the start-up agency that scooped the Diageo contract last month (PRWeek, 12 December 2003).

Splendid founder Alec Samways declines to reveal details of what activity is planned for Smirnoff but Diageo is to lavish £250m on a global makeover for the brand and its much-anticipated UK relaunch is to take place in around three months with a mix of consumer PR and the 'experiential' tactics favoured by rivals.

For Stoli, Revolver joint managing director Martin Ballantine says activity will stress the brand's 'Russian-ness' and is likely to include 'subtle guerilla marketing', which he explains as tactics such as 'flyposters without logos' and other such 'unbranded ambient media'.

Accent Communications, which has been hired by Finlandia to handle consumer and trade PR, is a further vodka brand currently finalising details for an upcoming PR blitz.

Accent MD Janet Burns says the campaign is likely to be less London-centric than that of many of the smaller brands - indeed it will focus on the regions and Scotland - but that bar managers and consumers will both be targeted, saying: 'Barmen are ambassadors for a brand'.

Market observers believe PROs embarking on such brand differentiation campaigns will have a tough task in the vodka market.

One says vodka PR is notorious for its 'embarrassing history of gimmickry', adding that the last 'decent' campaign he can remember was by Absolut more than a decade ago.

Dan Holliday, joint partner at TheFishCanSing, which is currently retained by Absolut globally, says most vodka PR initiatives fail as they 'hide behind naff cocktail recipes or vacuous parties, whose sole aim is to dish out as much branded booze as possible.'

Tough talk and Ballantine, too, is not afraid to blast rivals' plans, adding that some of Sputnik's marketing has reminded him of the 'alcopop route of the 1990s'.

The trenches have been dug for the 2004 vodka brands battle. AK-47s are at the ready and bar managers - and consumers - await the PR hard sell.

VODKA PR CONTRACTS CHANGE HANDS AS AGENCIES PREPARE FOR 2004 BATTLE

- Stolichnaya: First Drinks Brands hires Revolver Communications as Stoli's first PR agency in six years for upcoming consumer PR push (16 January 2004)

- Smirnoff: Diageo GB replaces Countrywide Porter Novelli with start-up agency Splendid Communications to handle consumer PR for forthcoming relaunch of Smirnoff Red (12 December 2003)

- Sputnik Vodka: Russian Vodka House drafts in Weber Shandwick's youth marketing arm Slam as part of £1m marcoms drive to promote the Russian-themed brand (12 December 2003)

- Finlandia: Accent Communications hired to replace Phipps PR on a consumer and trade contract to promote the brand across the UK (23 January 2004).

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