Smirnoff: a brand history

28th February, 2019 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Having been born in Russia, Smirnoff has reigned supreme in the US for decades. Now it must face the challenges the future poses.

*This feature was originally published in the October 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

It may not receive quite the same devotion from its parent as Johnnie Walker, but Smirnoff is still Diageo’s top-­seller and remains the world’s biggest global brand among premium spirits. With sales of 26 million cases last year, the vodka has come a long way since Pyotr Smirnov built his Moscow distillery in 1864. His spirit was purer than most, thanks to his pioneering use of charcoal filtration, and soon dominated the Russian vodka market until the Bolsheviks arrived in 1917. Fleeing the revolution, Pyotr’s son, Vladimir, left Russia to open a small distillery for his now westernised brand – Smirnoff.

“The original vision behind the brand was to take the highest­-quality vodka the Czars had access to and bring it to the masses,” says Luke Atkinson, global vice-­president, Smirnoff communications. Satisfying the mainstream is what Smirnoff is all about, as exemplified in the 2014 ‘Exclusivity for everybody’ campaign. As Dan Kleinman, the then US brand director, put it: “Smirnoff was created to be enjoyed by everyone, from Czars and Hollywood stars to you and your friends in the bar down the street.”

But it was no overnight success, and six years later Rudolph Kunett, who acquired the US rights in 1933, sold them to John Martin, president of American alcohol company Heublein, for just US$14,000. Vodka was seen as an ethnic spirit drunk by east European émigrés and shunned by other whisky­-drinking Americans until a South Carolina salesman began promoting Smirnoff as “white whiskey – no smell, no taste”. As Atkinson says: “The brand owners were smart enough to realise that vodka brought all the joys of whisky, but in a colourless, odourless and flavourless format.”

Martin, a tweedy, expat Englishman, was an unlikely booze baron but he seems to have shared that buccaneering spirit of Grey Goose’s Sidney Frank. He would make sales visits with a Polaroid camera in tow, take two snaps of the bartender with a bottle, leave one photo behind and take the other to the next venue to show that all the cool bars stocked Smirnoff. In 1941 he was with his friend Jack Morgan, owner of Hollywood’s Cock’n Bull restaurant, who was struggling to sell a stash of ginger beer. The pair decided to mix it with Smirnoff and serve it in a copper mug as a Moscow Mule.

This was the first big cocktail breakthrough, but again it was a slow burn. Smirnoff only really took off once the baby-­boom generation could drink legally, and once those ‘mad men’ of Madison Avenue had cast their spell. “Get a few mugs together and give a Smirnoff Mule party”, declared one ad from 1966, featuring a bottle, a stack of copper mugs and a youthful, goofy-­looking Woody Allen. Atkinson says: “You really get the idea that Smirnoff was different. It was a way to entertain your guests by offering them something more exciting.”

The brand is made worldwide

The brand is made worldwide

The US was undergoing “rapid suburbanisation with the rise of white-collar jobs”, explains Atkinson, and consumers embraced vodka as a clean, modern, sophisticated spirit. Vodka was the American dream in a bottle, and its leading brand had a powerful ally on the silver screen. Smirnoff was there for Sean Connery’s first appearance in Dr. No in 1962 and a string of other Bond movies – and for that critical moment when he needs another vodka Martini “shaken, not shtirred”.

INVESTMENT IN LOCAL PRODUCTION

By the mid-­1970s, Smirnoff had become America’s top­-selling spirit, only to be eclipsed by Bacardi for the next 30 years. Beyond lay the rest of the world, and “one of the reasons why Smirnoff has been so successful”, says Atkinson, “is that we have invested in local production in all the key markets. That has enabled us to live up to that original brand DNA of being for everybody because it means we can get to a price point that makes us a mass-market proposition.” The brand is produced in 16 countries, including the Philippines, India, Latvia and Kenya to the original 1864 recipe, according to Atkinson, though he admits the grain from which the spirit is distilled does vary.

“For most people, when choosing vodka, what it is made from and where is not as high a consideration as ‘does it make delicious drinks, and are all my friends going to enjoy it?’,” he says, adding that Smirnoff’s Russian heritage is also “not very important”. This was alluded to in Smirnoff’s memorable pop at US president Donald Trump last year when posters appeared with the words: “Made in America. But we’d be happy to talk about our ties to Russia under oath.”

Smirnoff was acquired by International Distillers & Vintners in 1987 and thus passed to subsequent owner Diageo, which began to ramp up innovation. Suddenly the mother brand, Smirnoff 21, was surrounded by endless new flavours, from Peppermint Twist and Electric Berry to Fluffed Marshmallow and Whipped Cream. Many have criticised the excesses of the flavoured­-vodka boom, but Atkinson argues it “kept vodka relevant to an audience that may not have gone for it because of its lack of flavour”. But he admits: “It may have opened the door to Tito’s.” According to IRI data for the year to September 2017, Tito’s vodka is now America’s top spirit, worth nearly US$190m, leaving Smirnoff just behind Jack Daniel’s in third place on US$173m.

The spirit may have slowed in the west, but Atkinson dismisses talk of peak vodka: “The prophecy of the death of vodka is somewhat overstated.” He reckons the category is less cyclical than many “because of its ability to flex with the times”, but acknowledges Smirnoff faces challenges, particularly in its mature markets. “We’re talking about a rebirth to take this brand to the next level,” he says. Quite what that means, we’ll have to wait and see.

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Smirnoff’s brand history.

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