hey’re charismatic. They’re urbane. They’re influential. They’re the culturally aware, fashion-trailblazing, trend-defining city dwellers who drove the return of skinny jeans and porkpie hats, blasted the iPod into the stratosphere, and made mid-century modern again.
For a marketer, props from this crowd means almost assured product success. So it’s no surprise that Stockholm, Sweden-based Vin and Sprit AB, maker of Absolut vodka and other premium spirits brands, wanted to gain the inside track with a critical cadre of these “do as I do” consumer pioneers when it was prepping to launch Absolut Cut, its pre-mixed, ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage (a la Bacardi Breeze and Smirnoff Ice) to the Australian market in 2005.
But there was one significant roadblock Absolut would absolutely need to overcome: This uber-influential target audience doesn’t respond to traditional print advertising. In fact, according to a 2007 study released by media-planning holding company Starcom MediaVest, fully one third of the coveted 17- to 35-year-old demographic say they never pay attention to advertising, use various methods to avoid brand messaging, and hold less than favorable attitudes toward the media content designed to influence them.
If you’re Absolut — the company renowned for its iconic print advertisements — how do you turn away from a model that has served you so well for so many years? V&S turned to the Sydney, Australia, office of Naked Communications, a band of advertising and marketing nontraditionalists, to distill a solution.
Naked crafted an innovative, event-based launch campaign for Absolut Cut spanning three months and two cities. Its purpose was to promote sampling of the product and then leverage the anticipated, peer-to-peer word-of-mouth raves it hoped the sampling program would generate.
It was a risky move. Naked was throwing its chips fully behind the power of word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing at a time when WOM was in its infancy as a formally defined marketing strategy, and hardly standard practice. Moreover, the leap was a massive departure from the Absolut norm, as Naked’s launch-campaign plan included no print advertising. That’s right — the company at the vanguard of product-as-art conceptual advertising completely eschewed traditional print media when it came time to spread the word about its newest product.
“Instead of spending millions of dollars on an above-the-line advertising campaign, we chose to create a unique brand experience which gave us the opportunity to sample the product and build upon the relationship that Absolut already had with its target,” says Mat Baxter, managing partner of Naked Communications Australia.
Selling the no-ad concept wasn’t easy. But Naked felt that precisely because Absolut’s ads are so iconic, a print campaign could actually be detrimental to the new product. “If you think about how consumers have been conditioned to interact with Absolut ads, the minute you see one, you instantly think it’s for Absolut vodka,” Baxter explains. “If you have a new product to launch, and it’s no longer straight vodka, do you do it in the same channel, or do you step out and do something different?”
Naked’s ability to convince Absolut to be an early adopter of the fledgling WOM strategy was significant. “Word of mouth has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in the consumer marketplace today,” says Ed Keller, president and director of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and CEO of the Keller Fay Group, a word-of-mouth research and consulting company. “In almost all product category areas, word of mouth is the number one way that consumers make decisions about products and services, and its impact has been rising dramatically over the past five to 10 years.”
One reason for the rise, Keller says, is that “brands are a key conversational currency.” In other words, consumers enjoy talking about products and services, and love to be asked for — and to make — recommendations. According to Keller Fay research, the impact of word of mouth on the people who are on the receiving end of advice and recommendations is enormous — about 50 percent of people say they are extremely likely to buy based on the word-of-mouth recommendations they receive.
APPEALING TO THE INFLUENTIALS
Eager to put that conversational currency in the mouths of the social influencers who would spread the word about Absolut Cut, Naked sharply defined its target audience into two groups to help focus its event-design efforts. It dubbed the first, and most influential group, Cultural Creatives — the fashion designers, photographers, musicians, and other artistic-hipster types who would give the product credibility. The second group, called Active Urbanites, are those people who aspire to be like Cultural Creatives, and who — due to their greater numbers — could deliver stronger sales volume.
In short, when Cultural Creatives start parading in public with a product or gadget they have anointed as hot, the larger population of Active Urbanites will be quick to jump on board and start buying that product, too. “These people are seen as leaders. They’re the types who will educate others, and therefore spread the word,” Baxter says.
These adventurous, self-confident socializers would help Naked address another of Absolut’s primary launch objectives: to overcome (or avoid altogether) the “female” association that RTDs tend to have, thanks to their sweet, fruity flavors, and sometimes bright colors. By convincing male Cultural Creatives, who might typically choose to order a premium beer, that Absolut Cut was a desirable drink, Absolut would give the RTD even more credibility and acceptance among both men and women. “We wanted to change the social perception around pre-mixes,” Baxter says.
CUT TO THE HEART OF THE CULTURE
With advertising wholly out of the mix, Naked turned its attention to crafting a communications theme that would resonate across the guerilla-like channels it intended to saturate with its launch campaign. This theme needed to set a foundational tone for the product by representing Absolut Cut’s brand values, which had been defined by Absolut as sharp, elemental, and candid. “We naturally wanted to find a central communication idea that reflected these values,” Baxter says. “To us, sharp, elemental, and candid meant stripping away the layers of BS that not only exist in the pre-mix market, but in day-to-day life, and providing a clearer and true-to-life perspective.”
The Naked team knew through psychographic profiling of its audience that Cultural Creatives want to create their own experiences, to have a hand in defining what brands and products mean to them. So in a nod to this key motivator, Naked created “Cut of the City,” a sharp, personal tagline with immediate appeal to its audience of committed and curious urbanites.
Meant to celebrate those who find in-the-moment appreciation of the crazy beauty of urban life, Naked tweaked the central communications theme to invite and encourage audience involvement by asking, “What’s your cut of the city?” In other words, what does a moment of time in the city look like to you? What best represents your life, your culture, your perspective? This naturally intriguing invitation would build buzz, Naked hoped, around the entire launch effort.
OWN THE ENVIRONMENT
Buzz is good. But it’s what happens with the buzz that makes or breaks a product. The campaign needed a physical center; a homing signal for the Cultural Creatives that would convert cultural buzz to Cut buys.
Naked knew from research that a product-sampling event would drive high returns. Earlier market testing proved that once potential consumers tasted the product, their repeat purchase was high. “The taste did the work for us. If we could get as many people sampling as possible, in an environment that the brand controlled, then we knew that we’d have a successful campaign,” Baxter says.
A bar, naturally, would offer gathering grounds for the adventurous and urbane audience Absolut wanted to attract. It would also be an authentic environment for product-trial events. But tying the campaign to any old bar wouldn’t ensure the focus stayed exclusively on Absolut. Signs from other brands, lighting and décor in conflict with the artsy Absolut brand attributes, even music not aligned with the urbane tastes of the target audience all could, at minimum, confuse the audience about the product (or attract the wrong target altogether), and, at worse, derail a carefully crafted and precisely targeted launch campaign.
“If you’re a pre-mixed product, the last thing you want to do is hand your samples out in an area you don’t control,” Baxter says. “What we wanted to do was sample the product, but control everything that happened around that sampling — the look, the feel, the style of the people handing out the samples. We wanted everything within our control. And the only way to do that is to own the real estate.”
So rather than the typical promotion with wandering babes in bars handing out product samples, Naked built a full-on event program to showcase Absolut Cut. The company took out short-term leases on two pubs, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, and fully branded them as Absolut Cut bars. It then transformed the bars into three-dimensional representations of the Absolut Cut brand. Relying on another of its insights about the Cultural Creatives it sought to attract — and the “too girly” objection about RTDs it wanted to counter — Naked brought a cool, sophisticated, and subtle masculinity to the bars. As Naked describes, women will take cues from and are comfortable in an environment for cool men — but not vice versa.
A swimmer, about to break the calm of a pristine pool. A lonely city street in the middle of the day. A deserted beach. Flashes of night owls blurring past neon signs. According to the artier residents of Australia’s largest cities, this is what a moment in urban time looks like — from midday to midnight and back. The images are all part of Absolut’s word-of-mouth launch strategy for its pre-mixed, ready-to-drink beverage, Absolut Cut. With several of the images displayed gallery-style in two bars, leased by Absolut for the duration of the launch campaign, the shots were the hook that drew Absolut’s target audience of culturally aware, urban hipsters to the bars to check out the photos and sample the product. The photo campaign, dubbed Cut of the City, invited first professional photographers and then layman Aussies to snap shots of their favorite hangouts. The photographers then crafted a statement of when and where the photo was taken, and its personal significance. The photo project lent a customer-built, art-opening flair to the events, ensuring that the right creative crowd would belly up for a bottle of Cut.
The Sydney bar, housed in a former hotel in the city’s Surry Hills neighborhood — often described as a cosmopolitan-with-grit zone that attracts black-clad, creative types with a social conscience — had all the hallmarks of an ahead-of-the-curve hot spot. Giant banquettes with oversized pillows in the white, silver, and blue Absolut palette lined carpeted aisles where bar-goers mingled. Inner-lit bars, well stocked with Absolut Cut and tapas-like snacks, glowed in the space. Photography lined the walls, adding to the artsy and gallery-like feel.
A multi-channel promotional effort with grassroots, insider flair drove traffic to the bars. Naked, along with its Sydney-based communications and digital-marketing partner firms Cav Con and Capture, blanketed the native habitats for the Cultural Creatives and Active Urbanites in its sights — funky neighborhoods, radio, and the Web — with postcards, posters, sidewalk graffiti, and streaming videos, all promoting the bars and in-bar events and built around the overall Cut of the City campaign theme.
The bars were open on and off for two weeks over the course of two months in each city, showcasing up-and-coming local bands and DJs. Each attendee was handed a voucher for a free bottle of Absolut Cut upon arriving at the bar. The “open today, closed tomorrow” approach added to the underground, “in the know” tone that drove the campaign’s cool factor.
To add one more layer of cultural appeal to the bar-based sampling events, Naked formally showcased its target audience’s response to the “what’s your cut of the city?” question. To seed that audience response, Naked and capture commissioned photographs by 40 different artists who were paid to supply their own visual “cut” of the city by taking a photo that represented a moment of time in their locale. “We wanted to dismantle superficial perspectives of cities and get people to take pictures of the city they knew — the underbelly,” Baxter says.
The photos, which ranged from portraits to beach scenes, were displayed gallery-style in the Cut bars and on a campaign-branded Web site, to cement the tone for the events and the product: This is for people who see things differently. The Web site encouraged more urbanites to provide their own photographic “cuts” of their hometowns. Some were accompanied online by brief videos in which the submitting photographer talked through how and why he or she grabbed the shot, and its personal significance. Ultimately, more than 2,000 photos ended up on display either at the bars or online, and helped drive word of mouth about the bars, the events, and the product.
The bars-slash-galleries were the cultural center of the launch campaign, providing a place for Cultural Creatives and Active Urbanites to meet, check out some music and the photography, and — of course — sample Absolut Cut.
A BIG GULP
By the close of the event campaign, more than 7,000 drinking bohemians had stopped by the Absolut Cut bars, sampling more than 12,000 bottles of Absolut Cut. While Cultural Creatives often lean toward premium beer, the in-bar events succeeded in turning them toward Cut. According to Naked, customers bought Absolut Cut at a one-to-one ratio versus beer while in the Cut bars.
Even the campaign’s marketing materials were a hit. Attendees took home more than 8,000 Absolut Cut–branded coasters, along with 2,000 tabletop-worthy postcard booklets that featured the professional photographs from the galleries. The campaign also generated more than 550 media mentions. Perhaps most important, following the launch events, Absolut Cut recorded sales in Australia 34 percent above target. “It wasn’t as easy as buying a heap of advertising space, but it generated significantly more engagement and word of mouth, and created the brand advocates — not to mention the sales — we wanted,” Baxter says.
Even though the launch was successful, Absolut Cut ultimately did not make the cut globally for V&S. According to Absolut spokesperson Paula Eriksson, while V&S “found very positive acceptance for Absolut Cut on the Australian market, we were unable to deliver according to our business plan. Therefore we decided to de-list this product from the market.” Likely contributing to the eventual discontinuation was the fast fade of the RTD trend overall. According to market researcher Global Information Inc., sales of flavored alcoholic beverages, which include RTDs, were projected to fall by 18 percent worldwide by the end of 2007, landing well below year-2000 sales levels.
Despite the category falloff, the Absolut Cut launch campaign was innovative and effective. “In Australia, it was the first marketing campaign for an alcoholic beverage ever to not use mainstream media in a launch,” Baxter says. “Most people use events to prop their campaigns up at various points in the process — to launch a campaign, or wrap up a campaign. Very rarely do brands put events at the core of their campaign idea and wrap the event with lots of other media and campaign content. This made the event the hero of the entire campaign, and that was both unusual and successful.” e