Absolut: Pride, Progression and Vodka Kings
In an intimate interview, founder of production company and branded entertainment agency, Cult, Constantin Bjerke, speaks to Absolut’s Vice President of Global Marketing, Craig Johnson, and Global Communications Director, Gaia Gilardini. Having just launched their first creative work for Pride 2017 with BBH following a full creative reshuffle, the pair reveal what makes Absolut tick. It turns out it’s all charmingly drawn from the progressive heritage of the King of Vodka and from within a 75-mile radius of their Swedish distillery…
Constantin Bjerke> We are seeing a lot of change in the alcohol industry at present, particularly spirits with the rise of gin and whiskey. Can you give us an overview of the category and where it’s going?
Craig Johnson> I’m a long-time industry veteran and even for me it’s a daunting task to take over Absolut. The history and iconic nature of the brand are so entrenched. The spirits industry is traditionally a super fun industry. Vodka as a category is still dynamic; it’s the biggest category in the world but it is also under threat. Whiskey has found relevance and a role in modern drinking with bartenders and speakeasies and cocktails - gin as well. But vodka still holds a strong place and has a real role to play. It is a growing category and, most importantly, it is growing around the world.
CB> You already alluded to there being a lot of change, also in people that are going to take Absolut to that next level. There is a new CEO, new CMO, new comms director, new creative agency, what can we expect in the future?
Gaia Gilardini> A lot! Watch this space, we are so excited. We have been working very closely in the past month with all of our partners. What we are really looking forward to is bringing back our DNA and getting our core beliefs out there.
CB> You mention beliefs and there is this quote that I often like to think about when it comes to this topic: ‘Every dollar you spend, you cast a vote for the world you want to live in.’ As we’ve seen with certain brand backlashes in aviation and soda, it’s easy to get it wrong. So how are you going to get it right?
GG> It’s about believing in the work you are doing because it stems from who you are and what you are about. It’s about being able to execute your vision in the most respectful way. We encourage the vision of the world that we have and we hope that some people share our beliefs – but if they don’t then we respect that the world is made up of different points of view.
CJ> Absolut has a history of great advertising that is steeped in real stories and progression. The little icon on the neck of our bottles is Absolut founder, Lars Olsson Smith – AKA the King of Vodka. He was convinced that the bad vodka people were drinking those days, was bad for their health. That’s why he created an absolutely pure vodka in 1879, free from fusel oils. It became a run-away success, and made him one of the most well-known and rich men in the country.
He made his own living since he was 12 years old, he wasn’t from the upper class or nobility. He was a very early entrepreneur who came from poverty and he built up his business. He was a bit of a rebel and a bit of a progressive. There are so many stories to tell about him.
He launched a vodka war against the city of Stockholm. The municipality introduced a Licensing Company, and in spite of L.O. Smith offering a better and cheaper vodka, he did not win the five-year contract. Furious, he bought boats that took people to his distillery, which was situated on an island outside city limits. People loved it!
He never forgot where he came from. He wanted to improve economic conditions for workers and proposed they should get full voting rights. He even became a member of parliament. He had strong beliefs and said that “The world has to progress. The world can only progress if people progress, and individuals can only progress if they are allowed to be free.”
And he meant it. With his support, his daughter actually married a Turkish man, which was controversial at the time.
We are taking inspiration from this heritage and the fact that we truly believe these values as a company. Besides that, diversity is key for us. The Absolut CEO is a woman. Sweden is a very progressive country in general but we are trying to push that further. The split of male/female managers at Absolut is 50/50, as is the same on our leadership team. 25% of our employees in Stockholm are non-Swedish because we want diversity and we want diverse insights to drive our brand.
We truly believe in progressivism. We are proud that the production of Absolut Vodka is climate neutral today. Sweden is known for its clear water so we are constantly looking for new ways to save it. Our crystal-clear bottle is made of 40% recycled glass, and we’ve managed to reduce its weight without compromising its iconic shape.
We work closely with our community. Farmers who live up to our quality and environmental standards, we pay more. We feed 250,000 piglets and 40,000 cows with our stillage – every day. When we distil our vodka, we capture the carbon dioxide and that goes in to sparkling water. We’ve been doing it for years now but we have never talked about it, so we have to start telling these stories - but in a really fun way.
CB> I heard you say gender equality; I heard you say racial inclusivity; I heard you say freedom of expression and defiance, sustainability and we hear a lot about support for LGBTQ+ community…
CJ> Absolut has set the pace with brands showing support for LGBTQ+ communities. We have and always will support them. They were one of the first communities that really adopted the brand. We are proud to be one of the companies at the forefront of that conversation. Last year, we were the first company to have a trans actor in our film.
CB> It sounds like that comes from the working culture you have at the company. It seems very natural. What can the rest of the world learn form that?
CJ> I think the main thing is that what you do has to come from the heart. You cannot say you do these things if you do not practice them. It is absolutely apparent in everything that you do. When I joined the team, we were not perfect but every day we strive to become perfect. As a company, we have a motto that says ‘passion from progression’.
CB> What can you do in a tangible way that goes beyond advertising to actually make the world a little bit more progressive?
GG - Be open to ideas. Working with our partners and creative agencies, we will be looking to take a stand and make real change. We have a few things in the pipeline which we cannot yet disclose. The idea is that we would have a strategy around sharing what we stand for and the vision of the world we would like to see. Alongside this we will look to activate some collaborations with people that share our values.
CB – What initiatives do you have in place already that help the world?
CJ> Everything that goes into Absolut comes from within 75 miles of our factory in southern Sweden. Even the glass, the cap and the paint that goes on the bottle - the wheat too. We are Sweden’s largest agricultural export product. As I mentioned before we have an abundance of pure water in Sweden but we want to make sure the whole world has access to clean water. We work with Water For People, helping people build wells in communities around the world. For every bottle of Absolut Elyx someone buys, we provide water to places that need it.
CB> Is there one thing you could tell us that we don't know about Absolut?
CJ> Half the people in the US and UK don't know Absolut comes from Sweden, if you didn't know it came from Sweden, you do now!