Smirnoff: Vodka is losing ‘publicity game’ against American whiskey

7th April, 2015 by Becky Paskin

The vodka category must “reinvent itself” if it is to compete seriously against the likes of American whiskey, the director of the world’s leading vodka brand has said.


Smirnoff Vodka owner, Diageo, believes a focus on the consumer, rather than the category, will drive category growth

Matt Bruhn, global brand director of Smirnoff, has also told The Spirits Business that the global vodka category is “losing the game of publicity” against other categories, and must evolve to ensure consistent future growth around the world.

Citing Millennials as the largest buying group in the US, Bruhn claimed the category must stay abreast of shifting consumer trends to appeal to their “dramatically changing” tastes.

“We believe that Millennials’ ‘cultural metabolism’ has changed dramatically by virtue of technology moving at pace,” he explained. “The vodka category has always been on the ledge of trend and needs to keep reinventing itself; that’s the biggest challenge for Smirnoff. We need to make sure we understand, and are part of, any increasing cadence of change in the marketplace.”

Although global vodka volumes are currently stable, growing at just 0.5% in 2013 [IWSR; the most current data available], changing consumer trends could tip the scales in the favour of other spirits categories.

But rather than being a simple case of evolving consumer tastes, Bruhn has insisted the issue lies more with the vodka category’s failure to promote itself.

“The conversation is moving toward flavoured whiskey which is exciting and vibrant and very much new for the category,” he explained.

“What we haven’t done enough of is making key influencers aware that we are trying to revitalise the category, so we are guilty of the vibe of vodka being worse than its actual performance.

“The category is not in decline in a global sense; it’s over 9% CAGR growth in the last three years and that’s ahead of total spirits, but the vibe on vodka is that it’s done.”

Consumer over category

Bruhn said Diageo’s approach is to focus on targeted communication, a shift of priority toward consumer experience rather than the category, plus innovation to drive incremental growth.

“I tend not to think about vodka as a category, but rather what we are going to do to meet the ever-changing consumer taste profile,” he said. “That then allows you to think more freely outside the existing definitions of vodka. So that’s how we are thinking about it – what’s the consumer need, what’s the taste and occasion, what’s the discretionary income and how do we move toward meeting that demand?”

He added that despite consumer and media attention fixing on American whiskey and gin right now, the vodka category will not lose market share.

“There are too many big players with too much vested interest and too much belief in vodka to ever let it be beaten,” he explained.

“We will make sure that vodka remains this amazing, versatile, ever-changing reinventing category. If we are losing anything it’s the game of publicity and the spin at the moment. We need to get it back to have people see the opportunity and future in vodka.”

For more in-depth analysis on the vodka category see the April issue of The Spirits Business, or stay tuned to for the remainder of Vodka Week (7-10 April).

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