Smirnoff the primal vodka

Smirnoff turned itself into a Primal Brand, and became the number one selling vodka in the U.S.A.

I was sitting at the Starbucks in Westport, Connecticut with an executive of Smirnoff’s Global Brand Planning. I was explaining the seven pieces of primal code, beginning with the creation story, when a smile spread across his face. “That’s exactly what we did with Smirnoff!” he burst out.

Turns out, Smirnoff was created by Piotr Aresenyevich Smirnov, who was able to take raw vodka and filter it into through silver birch tree charcial and create a potable drink. While peasants were still filling buckets of their hard stuff, Smirnov’s refined vodka was smooth and imminently drinkable. When the Czar tried it and liked it in 1886, Smirnov’s career took off. He was appointed purveyor to the royal court and was awarded not just a single coat of arms, but four coats. He became Count Smirnov, and started wearing fur coats. The family became a part of Russian aristocracy just in time for the Russian Revolution. Piotr’s son Vladimir was arrested, escaped the firing squad, fled to Paris, lived in poverty, emigrated to America where he founded the Smirnov distillery again.

Unfortunately, America’s popular spirits were brown goods (like scotch). By 1939, Smirnoff (let’s assume he changed the spelling of his name around this time) couldn’t even afford to pay his $1500 liquor license. He sold to Heublein, where he encountered John Martin, a marketing guy in Bethel, Connecticut, who changed his life again.

Martin positioned vodka as “the white whiskey”. They created cocktails (they invented cocktails) like the Martini, Bloody Mary, Screwdriver and the Moscow Mule. The 1950s were a cocktail revolution. During the first three years sales tripled and then doubled from that. In 1952, the “leaves you breathless” advertising campaign was launched. Smirnoff went to Hollywood and was featured in James Bond movies, Woody Allen starred in Smirnoff print ads, life was one endless vodka martini.

Then things went a little tipsy. Smirnoff, a little drunk from their new-found fame, let their image lapse. Then, during the Cold War, the brand became “too Russian”.

During the political chill and an ensuing trade embargo, an upstart named Absolut (from Sweden, no less) entered our shores and filled the gap. Vodka was never the same again.

Now it wasn’t just vodka (where Smirnoff was shelved), now Absolut and others created the premium vodka category. Premium brands thrived. Grey Goose and others entered the market. Smirnoff gathered dust, its heritage forgotten, and Smirnoff sales slumbered at the bottom of the liquor store rack.

Recently, the marketers at Smirnoff unearthed the lost history of Count Smirnoff. They informed employees how the brand had actually invented the vodka market, creating esprit de vodka. Sales staff spread the word and reminded the trade.

On January 26, 2005, The New York Times conducted a blind taste test of premium vodkas and Smirnoff won, surpassing 21 other super-premiums.

Using their valuable creation story to reignite the brand, the vodka that helped vodka become the number one spirit in the world, is the number one-tasting spirit brand in the U.S.A. today.

[Noted: Primal Brands contain the seven pieces of primal code: a creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader. These seven pieces of code, used together, attract communities of people like those that surround brands like Nike, Apple, Starbucks. (For purposes here, “brand” is considered to be any product, service, personality, organization, social cause, political ideology, religion, movement, or other entity searching for popular appeal.)]