V&S Group (Absolut Spirits)


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From its home in the tiny port village of Åhus on the Baltic Sea in southern Sweden, Absolut Vodka first conquered America and has since gone on to become the third best-selling spirits brand in the world. Since its inception Absolut has benefited from creative people who believed in doing things differently.

In 1879, Lars Olsson Smith introduced a vodka which he later named ‘Absolut Rent Brännvin’, literally meaning ‘absolutely pure vodka’. He utilised the recently developed technology of Aeneas Coffey’s column still to create his own series of rectification columns, which together removed practically all the congeners so making a technically pure vodka. The maverick inventor and industrialist also circumvented a state-backed vodka producers’ cartel by establishing a distillery on the island of Reimersholme (just outside the Stockholm city limits) and offering a free ferry service to his customers.

After Lars Olsson’s death, the brand enjoyed little success under the ownership of the Swedish state liquor monopoly. Then, in 1979, the brand’s centenary, Lars Lindmark, the new president of Vin & Sprit, decided to relaunch it. The bottle was redesigned in the style of an old Swedish medicine bottle found in an antique shop window in Stockholm’s Old Town – appropriate, since vodka was sold in 16th & 17th century pharmacies as medicine.

The name ‘Absolute Pure Vodka’ could not be registered in the US because ‘absolute’ was a common adjective, so it was shortened to Absolut, the original Swedish spelling. The word ‘Pure’ in the original name also posed legal problems and was removed and the slogan ‘Country of Sweden’ was added, as was the silver medallion with an image of Lars Olsson Smith.

Absolut launched in the toughest market of them all – the US. The first order for Absolut was called on 20th April 1979 and the now legendary minimalist advertising campaign was launched in 1981 with ‘Absolut Perfection’, which featured the bottle with a halo. The Absolut Vodka advertising campaign has been running nonstop ever since. The sometimes witty, often challenging and always simple advertisements established the brand as a desirable, fashionable vodka, leading to worldwide sales of 3.3 million cases at the end of its first decade, 6.7 million cases by 1999 and 10.2 million cases last year.

Absolut was the first premium vodka and few would argue that it paved the way for the many ‘me too’ designer vodkas that have followed since. Without Absolut would there have ever been a vodka boom? Whatever you think of Absolut you’d have to agree that it is the most iconic of vodka brands, driven by what has to be some of the most consistently inspired advertising and marketing the drinks industry has ever seen. The concepts, creatives and bottle designs, which form the following milestones in the life of Absolut are as much works of art as they are a lesson on how to continually reinvigorate a brilliantly conceived brand.

The first Absolut Vodka advertisement. One evening Geoff Hayes from the TBWA New York ad agency was doodling huge Absolut bottles on a pad while he watched ‘The Honeymooners’ on television. Above one bottle he drew a halo and this inspired him to add the strap line, “Absolut, It’s the perfect vodka”. This was shortened to Absolut Perfection and the concept inspired the ‘Absolut Product’ series of advertisements. Problems lighting the bottle from the front dictated that all adverts have the bottle lit by a round glow from behind, with the only exception being Absolut Larceny, where the padlocked bottle featured in the previous Absolut Security has been stolen. These simple, understated ads always featured a suitably poignant strap line.

This little known and underappreciated ad depicts an Absolut bottle as a Broadway marquee. It is the first Absolut advertisement where the shape of the bottle is represented by another object or objects so the series became known as ‘Absolut Objects’. These included Absolut Peak (a snow and tree covered mountain), Absolut Intelligence (a computer chip) and Absolut Tube (formed by the Circle Line on London’s Tube map.

Andy Warhol was commissioned to paint his impression of the Absolut bottle. Just as he had done for the humble Campbell’s soup can, Warhol transformed the iconic Absolut bottle in his signature pop art style and his work was featured in advertisements around the world. He was paid $65,000 for the painting, a price that would establish the ceiling for all future Absolut artist’s works. Michel Roux, the President of the brand’s US importer is quoted as saying of artists who wanted more, “He isn’t worth more than Andy”.

A series of ads, which would become known as Absolut Fashion, were the idea of Andy Harris - a young advertising sales representative from America’s Mademoiselle magazine. The first of many fashion designers to be commissioned was David Cameron who created a simple silver minidress emblazoned with the Absolut bottle. The statuesque model is Rachel Williams.

Outside of America, Absolut’s popularity was spreading across Europe and it was decided to instigate an advertising campaign which would work in this market as well as in the brand’s established U.S. market. One of the first in the Euro Cities series of advertisements was Absolut Venice. Legend has it that wheat harvested from the rich fields of southern Sweden was used to attract enough pigeons for this shoot.

Fashion photographer Helmut Newton was famous for his erotic, stylised scenes. The model Kristen McMenamy was dressed in creations by an international line-up of designers including Helmut Lang and shot in Newton’s signature monochrome style in and around the distillery in Åhus. The ABSOLUT NEWTON campaign ran in half a dozen editions of Vogue throughout America, Europe and Asia.

Fashion photographer Herb Ritts photographs the Absolut Versace campaign, featuring fashion by Gianni Versace, at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. Built every year from 6,000 tons of crystal-clear ice harvested from the Torne River, the hotel was a stunning backdrop for the shoot and it was the starting point for a lasting collaboration between the Icebar and Absolut. The 500 millionth bottle of Absolut Vodka was produced in Åhus the same year.

The Absolut Originals campaign, a collaboration between Absolut and 16 cutting- edge European artists was launched in 1998. Amongst others, the campaign included artists Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and Francesco Clemente. Hirst’s ad famously featured a series of Absolut bottles inside a series of ever-smaller fish tanks.

Absolut Legends was a series of advertisements celebrating Swedish legends ranging from Midsommar - the fertility festivity on the brightest day of the year - to Lucia, the saint that brings light to the darkest night of the Swedish winter. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed a haute couture collection for the series which was photographed outdoors at night by fashion photographer Jean-Baptise Mondino.

Long supporter of the visual art, Absolut Kravitz was the start of the brands relationship with music. The collaboration with (you guessed it) Lenny Kravitz included a new track called ‘Breathe’ based on his interpretation of the Absolut brand.

This Absolut campaign spelled out the brand’s philosophy, namely that “doing things differently leads to something exceptional.” A thought provoking salient message delivered through six pieces from a series of leading international artists, each bringing light to an element of Absolut in both a literal and metaphorical way – for instance, the word ‘differently’ is woven in wheat, depicting the winter wheat which is used as the primary ingredient for Absolut vodka. The other five large-scale installations are made out of ice blocks, two thousand hanging Absolut bottles, flying lanterns, gigantic balloons and thousands of glass cylinders. Each installation forms a word and is crafted to tell part of the Absolut story.

They make

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