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.)

‘The Social Code’ Follow-Up To ‘Primal Branding’ Now Available On Amazon

The Social Code_cover_HanlonThinktopia announces the release of The Social Code, the much-anticipated sequel to Patrick Hanlon’s widely acclaimed book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future, published by Simon & Schuster Free Press in 2006.

The Social Code illustrates how to design and attract social communities in the digital age, using the underlying principles that help create viral brand communities. What Hanlon proposes is the agreeable notion that 21st century social communities are created not just from digital code, but from the emotional connections that bring us together: the social code.

YouTube, the largest social engagement platform on the planet, already promotes the construct outlined in The Social Code as their recommended method for designing and attracting online social communities. The new mission? To create a fan community that becomes so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

A build on Hanlon’s 2006 book, Primal Branding—celebrated by marketing and branding experts as the best explanation written so far on what Brands are and how to create them, The Social Code redefines the seven elements that define belief (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers and leader) in today’s digitally-centered environment. Facebook “likes,” social media clicks and hashtag counts become meaningless short-term responses unless they simultaneously build the social mechanisms that create long-term community.

Those who build social code attract others who share their values and beliefs—creating community and an unfair advantage over their competition. Those who don’t, don’t.

For the last decade, Thinktopia has been working with Fortune 100 companies honing the strategic and executional principles set forth in the The Social Code. While the cult classic, Primal Branding, anticipated social communities and looked at brands as belief systems in 2006,  The Social Code is a great leap forward and the essential guide for kickstarting entrepreneurs—as well established products and services—seeking to define their community narrative in the new social economy.

This becomes a billion-dollar equation for many companies. And we get the feeling that no one will want to be left out.

The Social Code is available now through Amazon.