The Drinking Game

by Denis Serikov on January 19, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I reflected on a success story of Jack Daniel’s.  One of the comments on that post came from Art Sagurian, the brand creator behind the Jewel of Russia vodka. He raised an excellent point that a successful product should have a very distinctive taste.  While the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms defines vodka as “a neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” aficionados can easily distinguish between various brands.  In the most recent unflavored vodka review, the Beverage Tasting Institute gave high marks to a lesser known Forty Degrees Vodka – a brand that sells for around $20.  The review read similar to wine description: “clean aromas with a touch of frosted wheat, cream and nut, with a silky, dry-ish medium body and a super soft, vanilla, dried fruit, and chalk accented finish with a hint of pepper.”  Rather flavorful for an ‘unflavored’ spirit, right?

Art’s other point brought up the legend and the origin behind each product.  For certain brands, those aspects become the foundation of their positioning on the market. Russian vodkas often rely on the visual of a Siberian backdrop, bearded men in fur hat taking shots, and mentions of Catherine the Great or some other Tsar Dynasty. Scandinavian and Polish vodka brands are not far behind, claiming to be the vodka forefathers and relying on clichéd traditions to back up those claims. (Perhaps the abundance of snow somehow equates to an increase in vodka production, drinking and expertise.)  French-made Grey Goose emphasizes its high-end quality (again, relying on the notion that everything made in France is more exclusive and expensive,) and argues to be the “world best tasting vodka” right on the bottle.

A couple of months ago we discussed the psychology behind consumer purchase decisions in beer brands. Vodka marketing wars fall within the same decision-making categories, but unlike beer, the beloved clear liquor demands a more ‘in your face’ messaging, a constant reminder that a certain brand is more hip or more affordable or better tasting.

New York City seems to get bombarded with vodka messages. Georgi gives you an eyeful on trucks and buses. Ciroc taps into Diddy’s world and takes over Times Square. Stoli and Ketel One choose the Meatpacking District, NYC’s nightlife Mecca, to capitalize on last-minute drink decisions, and Svedka’s  ‘Bots’ dominate the city’s billboards in all neighborhoods. Even a lesser-known budget brand Wodka jumped in with their awkward recession-driven pop-culture approach.

Overwhelmingly, vodka brands seem to be after the ‘party’ crowd, which is probably why we do not see an intimate connection between one of the brands mentioned above and the consumer. The ‘party’ route may deliver the volume of sales, but does it deliver the loyal following similar to Jack Daniel’s? Don’t think so. Unless, you are a part of Diddy’s entourage, of course.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Michaels 01.20.12 at 3:49 pm

Way to go! Nice and observant, an enjoyable read. It looks like you guys are paying attention to all the great things happening in your city. And the audience surely pays attention to you! For those who missed it, this morning there was an article in the WSJ on Global’s new direction – philanthropy and art:

Looking forward to reading your full report on your Palm Beach endeavour.


Gennady Agrest 10.19.12 at 1:34 pm

Some very interesting points made. I would note that from my interpretation, the US regulators certainly limit the variety of products that the consumer can enjoy. It is a pity In fact, since the alcohol industry (both spirits and wine and beer) has a variety of products that can cater to any tastes and preferences. The first barrier is regulation, which provides all sorts of inconveniences for brands to sell in the USA. The second of these is the overweighing presence of consumer brands that can afford To pump millions of dollars into advertising and marketing (so as to convince consumers to buy their brand). It is fair enough on their behalf (after all the point of most businesses is to make money). However, this severely restricts the quality choice that consumers are offered.

I am a representative of a Cognac house that has just entered the US market (Cognac Croizet), and here is a frank illustration – there are 2,000 cognac houses (brands) in the Cognac region (however 4 dominate 90% of the market). How many people can count the brands they know on one hand, let alone two? It’s unfortunate that too many sales are driven off the affiliation of what celebrities drink, rather than what drink has the best taste, best aromas etc.

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