Smirnoff: The Primal Vodka

I was sitting at the Starbucks in Westport, Connecticut with an executive from Smirnoff’s Global Brand Planning. I was in the middle of 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 charcoal 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.

But although Americans drank, the 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 afford to even pay his $1500 liquor license. He sold to Heublein, and 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’s image became dusty and, during the Cold War, essentially “Russian”.

During the political chill and trade embargo, an upstart named Absolut (from Sweden, no less) entered our shores and vodka was never the same again. Premium brands thrived. Grey Goose and others entered the market. Smirnoff became a bottom shelf brand, 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 among the trade.

In 2005, The New York Times conducted a blind taste test of the 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.

Note: “Primal” brands contain seven pieces of “primal code”: a creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader.

(The word “brand” is an imperfect word. For purposes here, “brand” is considered to be any person, place or thing searching for popular appeal.)

7 Ways Bob Dylan Doesn’t Think Twice About Brand Strategy

bob-dylanThe Basement Tapes, Volume 11 from Bob Dylan and The Band will be released this week (for a free sampler click here).

These rough recordings Dylan made in Woodstock, New York during the spring and summer of 1967 (two years before the famous Woodstock Music Festival) were created, as we all know, after Dylan his flipped his Triumph motorcycle on a country road and suddenly went dark. After pushing out two albums in 1965–“Bringing It All Back Home,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” in 1966, the so-called basement tapes created between “Blonde On Blonde” and “John Wesley Harding” (also in 1967) hardly seem like down-time.

Dylan, who had already gone from folky protest singer to electrified warlock, was just resetting the table.

“Nashville Skyline,” which came out in 1969, was a kick on the side of the head for fans still getting stoned on Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. And the album birthed an entirely new era of country rock.

The Basement Tapes have all the production value of just letting the tape roll, but include the not-yet-gelled versions of Quinn The Eskimo, and gangly but listenable takes on classics like I Shall Be Released, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, and This Wheel’s On Fire.

There is no question that Bob Dylan is a major brand in every sense. From the manufactured name “Bob Dylan” (his birth name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) to a lifetime of continual innovation and rebranding, Dylan-as-brand seizes the attention of a global fan community in the millions.

It is worth deconstructing the “Brand called Bob” to see the strategic touchpoints that lay  behind what all the fuss is about.

Like any powerful brand, the brand called “Bob Dylan” contains each of the seven pieces of “primal code” that design a narrative that attracts a community of believers, zealots, and the other advocates that create full-spectral fandom.

“Primal code” includes creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader that, when combined together, form a holistic belief system that attracts others who share your beliefs. These touch the emotional connections that we have with all brands, and create a template to help us understand why Bob Dylan has been attracting fans by the millions since the 1960s.

1. Creation story: As mysterious as it is famous, the spine of Dylan’s origin myth is that he made his way from Hibbing, Minnesota to New York City to visit legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie who was hospitalized in New Jersey. Along the way, Dylan shed his name Robert Zimmerman, for a hybrid based on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan joined the folk music scene in Greenwich Village and recorded an unspectacular eponymous album of cover tunes in 1962. But the release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album the following year (1963) included Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Girl From The North Country, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, and rightly changed the world.

2. Creed: Probably expressed best in Dylan’s track You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine. Dylan has always zig-zagged across musical styles and affiliations, leap-frogging genres, and creating bridges to new times and places.

3. Icons: The fact that Bob Dylan is an icon in popular music is no question. He is in the Rock And Roll Music Hall of Fame and Songwriter Hall of Fame. His personas as Greenwich Village folksinger, masked member of the Rolling Thunder Revue and never-ending leader of the Never Ending Tour (as well as his role in the aborted film Reynaldo and Clara), are images forever imprinted on Dylan fans and music public alike. But icons are not just images. Sound is also iconic: Dylan’s voice is iconic, and so are the iconic melodies in some of his most popular songs. This “sound” instantly identifies it’s Dylan, which is what being “iconic” is all about.

4. Rituals: Concerts are rituals. And so are interviews, appearances, signings, going into the recording studio and all the other seemingly random events that are woven together to create the map that designates the Dylan landscape. Waiting to see what Dylan comes up with next is also a ritual.

5. Sacred words: “Dylan.” One word, two syllables that represent a mountain of meaning for fans. The lexicon of Dylan album titles, the incredible song lyrics (the books, articles, student papers and blogs written about the meaning of Dylan lyrics number in the hundreds of thousands), and quotes from interviews and elsewhere become part of the sacred liturgy that surrounds the Brand Called Bob. These stimulate, provoke and titillate his global fan community.

6. Nonbelievers: For every “pro” there is a “con.” While Dylan has a global fan-base of millions, like all artists there are millions of others for whom his voice is a nail scraping a tin roof. His lyrics are too incomprehensible. After decades of deification, most of these critics have been beaten down or died off. And still. I used to have a dog who howled every time he played harmonica.

7. Leader: Bob Dylan is certainly the character who set out to recreate the world according to his own point of view. And now even at age 73, he continues to push the reset button.

Or maybe all this fuss about the release of yet another round Basement Tapes is just another set-up. Following press on the Basement Tapes, producers have announced a new Dylan release in 2015. Watch for “Shadows In The Night.”

To anyone born before, well, whenever, Dylan’s role in contemporary music may seem suspect. The words to Dylan’s first hit “Blowin’ In The Wind” might seem light and insipid. Until you realize that issues of race, freedom, war, ignorance, and myopic politicos are as contemporary as it gets. The wind is timeless and the questions raised are unanswerable.

It is testimony to Bob Dylan’s stature as a songwriter and generational muse for the last 50 years that even these scrappy 138 songs in a six-CD box set deserve consideration. (Bob Dylan is the only rock musician to ever win a Pulitzer Prize: “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.)

Last word. Bob Dylan doesn’t have to think twice about brand strategy because he has created a community so enthralled by his music and so committed to his success, they are willing to do it themselves. And that’s all right.