Is vodka the world’s most flexible spirit?

5th June, 2013 by Richard Woodard

Richard Woodard explores the latest trends in the world’s ultimate chameleon spirit.

Vodka Martini

Vodka continues to be the world’s largest international spirits category

Vodka: The master of reinvention and supple enough to bend and flex to fit the developing demands of consumers worldwide. Critics may sniff at the spirit’s perceived lack of character – authenticity even – but you can’t argue with the numbers.

As Euromonitor International stats make clear, the category remains the biggest spirits sector in the world, driven by growth in markets mature and emerging. The only blip in the historic figures concern volumes in Eastern Europe, where increasing diversification is altering what was previously a vodka monoculture.

And even here there has been a surge in value as that much vaunted premiumisation trend gathers pace. All of this in a five-year period spanning the biggest economic meltdown in a lifetime.

If that makes owning a vodka brand seem like a relatively simple task – secure your route to market and wait for the cash to roll in – don’t be fooled. While some international vodka brands may be governed by grand-sounding global strategies, others have to be as malleable as the category they inhabit.

Vodka volume

Case one: Smirnoff. Vodka accounts for 12% of global net sales for Diageo, and Smirnoff is the biggest premium spirits brand in the world, so there’s huge pressure to continue what has been a great success story for decades. The buck stops with Ed Pilkington, Diageo’s global category director for vodka, gin and rum.

“The [Smirnoff] recruitment strategy is consistent globally,” he insists, namechecking a string of familiar vodka marketing stand-bys, including catchy communications, nightlife events (a particular focus for the brand), great drinks and innovation. And he reckons it works pretty much everywhere. “In the last couple of years we’ve been excited by the growth of the category in markets as diverse as Argentina, Nigeria and South Korea. The growth formula might flex somewhat depending on vodka’s stage of development or advertising restrictions in any given market, but the principles remain the same.”

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