Vodkas: 'Affordable Quality' Getting a Workout


The message of "affordable quality" is an increasingly familiar one in the vodka market these days.

Imperial Brands got the ball rolling in 2007 when it introduced America to Sobieski, Poland's #1 premium vodka, with its award-winning "Truth in Vodka" campaign. The thrust: You don't have to pay inflated prices to get a great vodka (Sobieski's suggested 750 ml retail is $10.99, versus Grey Goose's average price of about $35).

As it happened, the Sobieski launch and the "Truth" campaign were perfectly timed to benefit from the recession. Last year, Sobieski's 580,000 cases sold broke a sales record, and it's now poised to become the fastest-ever new vodka to reach 1 million cases.

Achievement of that goal is likely to be hastened by the latest twist on the "Truth" campaign, which features Bruce Willis -- now a 3.3% owner of Imperial Brands stock.




In a series of "Bruce Has Ideas" Webisodes on truthinvodka.com, Willis is playing off Sobieski CEO Krzysztof Trylinski, throwing out implausible marketing ideas (like giving away a bathrobe with each bottle) that make the buttoned-down executive roll his eyes. Willis ads are also appearing in entertainment magazines and Web sites, and the movie star has embarked on a spokesperson tour that will hit markets including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto.

But Sobieski is no longer alone in looking to appeal to consumers who have come to consider it hip and savvy to opt for well-made but reasonably priced vodka. Wódka, another Polish rye vodka that's gotten strong reviews and costs even less than Sobieski (about $9.99 for 750 ml), launched in the U.S. last fall, and is now gearing up its own affordable quality-themed campaign.

James Dale, president of Panache Imports -- also parent of Alchemia vodka and Alibi Bourbon (and originator of the 42 Below vodka brand that was acquired by Bacardi in 2006 for a reported $91 million) -- says Wódka and its marketing thrust had been in development for three years, and were more or less ready to roll when the recession presented the perfect climate for the launch. The brand is currently sold in 14 states and five countries.

Panache -- entrepreneurial, at least in relation to Imperial Brands and its parent Belvédère S.A. -- won't be signing the likes of Willis anytime soon, but is using humor and creativity to raise awareness of Wódka.

Its most visible efforts to date are billboards in the New York City market trumpeting Wódka's "Hamptons Quality, Newark Pricing." The out-of-home efforts, visible in Times Square and the New York side of the Holland Tunnel, among other locations, feature Wass Stevens, an actor and hip-club (Avenue) doorman chosen for his insiderish appeal (although he's also a Ben Stiller lookalike). Non-humorous "branding" billboards featuring photos of Wódka's bottles and cases are also visible in the New York area.

Other billboards with their own humorous, creative takes (possibly also of a regional nature) will be seen in California starting in August, and in Florida starting in September, reports Dale. Creative will be changed about once per quarter over the next 12 months.

The brand's site, iloveWódka, went live as the NYC billboards debuted over the July 4 weekend. Traffic is being built through search engine optimization -- which has pushed the brand, once buried on second pages due to the fact that wódka is the Polish word for vodka, up to among the top results in searches -- and through social media.

The site promotes links to Wódka's new Facebook fan page and Twitter presence, and showcases recent tweets. This fall will see the unveiling of a much more interactive site and aggregate communities (through an online partnership) that will help drive both site traffic and social media conversations, according to Dale.

Dale declines to reveal Wódka's sales, but says that they are "healthy" and "on budget."

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