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.)

“What Chatterjee Said” Launches A New Conversation About Branding

Chatterjee Vid Screenshot

Why do some company’s products and services mean something to us, while others don’t? Why do people stand in line waiting for new iPhones, Lady Gaga tickets, or to get into Disney World? It’s not about their Facebook page, their selfies, Twitter count or hashtag program. These brands have an emotional connection that makes people feel like they’re a part of their community. They have a belief system that attracts others who share their beliefs.

It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to actually create it. So, how do you create that intangible ‘something’—that sticky soft tissue that attracts people to brands?

This is all revealed in Chapter 16 of The Definitive Book Of Branding, the new book edited by Kartik Kompella and published this month by Sage Publications, Inc.

Thinktopia ceo Patrick Hanlon contributed the article that leads the Emotional Branding section of the book, with a chapter titled “What Chatterjee Said”.

“When I wrote Primal Branding: Create Zealots For Your Brand, Your Company, And Your Future,” says Hanlon, “it was a theory I had. Since that time, the construct has been proven out, thanks to working with Fortune 100 brands all over the world.”

(The big news is that YouTube (the largest social engagement platform on the planet) did the metrics and proved that the Primal Branding™ construct works. It is now their recommended way of creating online social narratives. YouTube includes it in their certification courses at YouTube Labs.)

“We have learned a lot,” Hanlon nods. “And I wanted to share that. So when Kartik called me with his idea, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The Definitive Book Of Branding also includes chapters by Al Ries, Adam Morgan, Kevin Roberts and others. These people have written some of the best books ever written on branding, and it was great to be included, adds Hanlon.

“It was a privilege to have Patrick Hanlon contribute a chapter to The Definitive Book of Branding,” adds Kartik Kompella. “I had read Primal Branding and his perspective of brands was radical and brave. His approach is insightful and refreshing.”

Today, some people look at brands as Madmen trying to sell them something. But Hanlon, who worked on Madison Avenue, says nothing could be further from the truth.

“In today’s environment, Brands are more important than ever,” says Hanlon. “When there is a proliferation of products and so much choice, brands are the only way consumer can assess if something is real or not. The need for ‘brand’ has become larger, not smaller. Authenticity and transparency rank highly, and we want to know who we can trust.”

Hanlon’s primal branding construct includes creation story, creed, icons, rituals, a special lexicon, nonbelievers, and leader. Known as the primal code, these elements create a strategic brand narrative that is relevant, resonates with people and, at its core, is the glue that bonds social communities together.

Primal Branding Featured In Suriname Turnaround Brand Workshop

Turning stagnant brands into dynamic powerhouses was the subject of a workshop at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname this week. Primal Branding was featured in the class, according to attendees.

Primal Branding is the most effective construct for helping turn around brands in trouble. When you deconstruct a brand into its seven (7) pieces of Primal Code (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader) you can identify what (if any) elements are missing.Primal Branding at ADEK university in Caribbean Suriname

For example, when we worked on the Maxwell House coffee brand for Kraft, few stakeholders at Maxwell House recalled that 100 years ago there was actually a Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. One night, a President of the United States stayed overnight at the hotel. The next morning, as the President was having his morning breakfast, the waiter came over the refill the President’s coffee cup. Teddy Roosevelt held his hand palm down over the cup and said, “No, wait! This coffee is so good, it’s good to the last drop!” Roosevelt lifted the cup to his lips and drained it.

Using the Primal Branding process (which is now ratified and promoted by the largest social engagement community on the planet—YouTube) also helps you to identify and refresh brand elements to make them more relevant and meaningful for today’s markets. Those elements can include the logo, packaging, naming, delivery processes, even ingredients.

The process also helps to identify and single out brand assets. When we worked on an iconography project for Levis, we inspired the internal teams to revision their brand, their in-store merchandising, even their product design. Similarly, when we assessed the Fig Newtons brand several years ago, the packaging was colored an aseptic yellow. A more fruit-colored palette that aligned with healthy figs was recommended—and the new packaging boosted sales into the double digits. Fig Newtons new pkg

This process of deconstruction leads to a more kickass understanding of your brand and your brand community. The process also underlines which elements attract and appeal to your brand zealots. This is not about building your Facebook “likes” or dominating Pinterest. This is about the reality of your brand and bringing it to life, online and off.