Cool, Edgy, Artistic Absolut

While media pundits spend their time delighting in the downward spiral of electronic revenues, traditional companies such as American Express, Coca-Cola, BMW, Kmart, and Absolut have been quietly making their move—colonizing and conquering cyberspace.

Whether it’s the edgy brand installations of Absolut Vodka, creating buzz among the tech-set, or Kmart’s 21st century Bluelight.com website which shouts “Attention All Shoppers!” to middle America, successful offline companies have been busy acquiring online real estate. But more than merely establishing a web presence, these top international corporations have demonstrated remarkable visionary zeal by creating symbiotic relationships that blur the lines between online and offline marketing. By turning brand images into electronic entertainment, and leveraging the intimate, interactive nature of the Net to forge customer loyalty, these companies and others reinforce a next-generation of brand loyalty extending well beyond the confines of classic marketing channels.

As interactive advertising enters a new phase of development, understanding how and why so many traditional companies continue to succeed online is critical to anyone who expects to do business in the next decade.

A Silhouette Worth Remembering The image lingers in your subconscious long after the page is gone from your sight. Those seductively curving shoulders. The elegant tapered neck. The full-lipped mouth. The Absolut Vodka bottle has graced the back covers and center spreads of countless magazines for nearly two decades. And in the years since, Absolut Vodka advertising has become the centerpiece of a craze that develops a brand image in which the bottle becomes hero.

Yet in a medium seeking to establish some tradition, the venerable Swedish distiller of 80 proof white lightning has purposely avoiding traditional advertising campaigns. So when the company decided to make a test run on the newly emerging medium of the Internet, it decided to avoid the banners, buttons, and page sponsorships that are the predominant forms of e-advertising because “they’re creatively bankrupt,” says Dan Braun, former creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day, who spearheaded Absolut’s earliest forays online.

For openers, the company commissioned an audience segmentation study that confirmed a hunch that Absolut had two influential categories of users, both Internet-savvy: (1) recent college graduates who were hackers and crackers, technology-oriented people instrumental in designing and employing the web; and (2) writers, artists, and filmmakers who were telling people what the Internet was about and were a highly influential group.

The company then devised a series of online art installations that would appeal to its core users, where the brand is “wrapped around the entertainment experience,” says Braun. To that end, Absolut intentionally blurred the edges between content and entertainment using visually stunning images with marketing messages that were subtly wrapped around—what else?—the most recognized silhouette in advertising history.

By making Absolut a destination on the information highway rather than a mere billboard on someone else’s street, the company found a way to extend its print campaigns and the performance of art into an artistic, entertainment experience.

“The Internet hasn’t just been another consumer touch point for Absolut, it has been able to extend and enhance the consumer relationship through interaction and innovation,” says Neal Davies, account manager for TBWA Chiat/Day. “We recognized that our ‘target audience’ is not only online, but actively online. Our objective is to connect with them in ways that recognize and reward their time, attention and loyalty.”

Absolut Kelly, for example, the company’s first website, was an online museum curated by Kevin Kelly, then-editor of Wired magazine. Kelly brought together technology with biology through the use of cool visuals, and the site reached hundreds of thousands. The green light was then given to establish two more sites that also introduced sound and motion for the first time into the Absolut experience: 1) Absolut Panushka, in which digital filmmaker Christine Panushka created online animation shorts incorporating the Absolut image, and 2) Absolut DJ, which mixed sound and digital images to attract a broader audience of younger users accustomed to downloading music from the web.

Cutting Edge Technology Meets Quirky Imagery Then two years ago, when Absolut decided to launch its first online media campaign, it characteristically veered away from the expected use of English-language mega-portals like America Online, MSN, and Yahoo and instead chose as its first Internet partner StarMedia Network—a New York City-based aggregator of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking e-audiences in the U.S. and Latin America. Using cutting-edge technology, the company devised an entirely new type of online advertising campaign in which quirky incarnations of the bottle were randomly delivered to the user’s screen. The result was an effective translation of Absolut’s image as sophisticated, yet unconventional and unpredictable.

The campaign kept viewers engaged in a way that companies born on the Internet have so far failed to achieve. Yet merely measuring clicks represented “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Davies. “For a brand like Absolut, there has always been a strong balance between the qualitative and the quantitative. We complemented our data—tracking, interaction, and behavior—with a brand tracking study, which is consistent with the approach used for all previous offline efforts by Absolut.”

But considering the company generated roughly $1 billion in U.S. sales last year, about 60 percent of the important vodka market, it’s clear Absolut has found a formula that, for the moment, translates its edgy, artsy offline campaigns into effective marketing vehicles online.

What lessons can Absolut impart to other traditional companies that want to colonize and conquer cyberspace? 1) Rich media is not a precursor to creativity online, 2) Creativity should lead technology, not the other way around, and 3) By involving consumers in the actual advertising experience, a company can reward them for their time.

It’s undeniable Absolut understands that its primary online goal is branding—burnishing a value association into the user’s subconscious. And even though it can’t directly sell its products online, the company has managed to turn the Internet into a perfect channel by continuing to deliver cool, edgy, artistic images that its core customers crave.