Absolut Vodka is one of the world’s top selling spirit brands. The story behind the brand name and its characteristic bottle is an important chapter within the history of advertising and design. The bottle is also a link to the past. The seal of every Absolut bottle shows an illustration of L.O. Smith, the man who set out to make an absolutely pure vodka.
In the 19th century, L.O. Smith laid the foundation that inspired the creation of the well-known and successful Absolut vodka almost 100 years later. During the 1970s, L.O. Smith’s heritage was managed by Vin & Sprit (AB Vin- & Spritcentralen), the public company responsible for wine and spirit retail in Sweden. The factory operated by Vin & Sprit on Reimersholme, a small island in central Stockholm, is where L.O. Smith started his quest for an “absolutely pure vodka” in the 1870s.
In the 1970s, it seemed that the Swedes had lost their preference for strong spirits. At the state-owned liquor store Systembolaget, which had tried hard to change the country’s drinking habits through various campaigns, sales were dropping. Wine was presented as a better alternative, for example as the preferred choice of drink at dinner parties and similar occasions. In the early 1970s, a campaign known as “Spola kröken” encouraged people to stop drinking strong liquor completely.
Lars Lindmark, the CEO at Vin & Sprit, saw that Swedish spirit production was in trouble. He came up with the idea of exporting Swedish vodka to important markets like the USA. In America, vodka was considered a premium product that consumers were willing to pay for. Lindmark also realized that it would be crucial to have a sleek design and smart marketing to succeed in the highly competitive American market.
He contacted the legendary marketer Gunnar Broman at the advertising agency Carlsson & Broman. Carlsson & Broman had helped Lindmark during his time as chairman of the board at AB Pripps Bryggerier. They developed the Pripps Blå brand, which soon conquered as much as 40 percent of the Swedish beer market.
A new concept
Lindmark’s task was to develop a concept for exporting Swedish vodka. The bottle played a crucial role in the process. Gunnar Broman found the perfect model – a pharmacy bottle – in an antique shop in Stockholm’s Old Town. The connection to a pharmacy made sense. In the 16th and 17th centuries, vodka had been sold at pharmacies as medicine.
But how would they find their way into the American market? At a meeting with the leading creative team at the advertising agency Ayer in New York, Broman presented five different concepts. They went through lots of ideas; suggestions were made quickly and rejected even quicker. At the time, it was common to design premium bottles with an abundance of gold, silver and flashy decorations. Broman had something very different in mind: low-key, transparent and authentic. The see-through bottle with its unusual shape presented something fresh and new, and paradoxically drew the viewer’s attention through the product to the bartender or the store shelf behind. From a distance, a row of Absolute bottles would look like a vacuum.
Another ingenious trick was to design the bottle as an old-fashioned ad. The product name on top as a headline, followed by a label with text about the history and traditions, printed directly on the bottle. Everything could be traced back to the absolutely pure vodka produced by L.O. Smith in the 1870s.
As a further detail, a portrait of L.O. Smith was added to the bottle in the form of a silver seal. The seal served as a reminder of the long traditions and the historical heritage. At the same time, it appealed to the Americans and their preference for a more decorative design.
There were also heated discussions about the name. The first suggestion, ”Absolute Pure Vodka”, was out of the question as an adjective like “absolute” could not be registered as a trademark in the USA. Instead the name was shortened to “Absolut”, which is the Swedish spelling. “Pure” could not be used either, also for legal reasons. The Swedish connection was strengthened by adding the slogan ”Country of Sweden” to the product name.
”Country of Sweden” ready for export
Finally, American importers had to be convinced. Peter Ekelund and Curt Nycander from Vin & Sprit reached out to the American advisor Joe Tomassi. They joined forces to persuade one liquor director at a time, but the impact was limited as they had neither vodka nor a finished bottle to show. Hans Brindfors, an employee at Carlsson & Broman, found a manufacturer outside Paris that produced an exclusive series of twelve bottles. Ekelund and Myron Poloner from Ayers went to New York, where they walked into liquor stores and asked if they could rearrange the shelves to see how the innovative bottles would look visually.
Finally Al Singer, the CEO of the small Carillon Importers company, showed interest in the offer. Carillon Importers was primarily known for marketing the French liqueur Grand Marnier. The Absolut marketing account was handed over to Carillon’s agency Martin Landy Arlow Advertising in New York. The new advertising agency requested major design changes, which in turn were refined by Lars Börje Carlsson, Gunnar Broman’s partner at Carlsson & Broman. “Absolut Vodka” was written in large and clear blue letters, and the accompanying slogan “Country of Sweden” added in elegant black font across the middle.
In the spring of 1979, Absolut Vodka was launched at a trade fair in New Orleans. The new Swedish spirit shortly reached consumers on the American East Coast, and this is where the export success began. It also marked the turning point for the factory in Åhus, which had been shut down at this point. In April 1979, 700 crates, with a total of 6,300 liters of vodka, were shipped to Boston. The factory employees saw hope for the future and a sense of optimism spread among them. Over the next ten years, the factory tripled the number of employees.
Soon enough, Absolut created a buzz in Manhattan’s trendy cocktail bars. Many curious New Yorkers were keen to try an ”Absolut on the rocks”. If a bartender shook his head and said that he hadn’t heard of the new, exciting vodka from Sweden, it just helped to spark more interest. In December 1980, the bottle was awarded first prize from the Art Directors Club in New York – and what could be a better acknowledgment of a successful design? As the prize could only be given to an American agency, it was not received by the Swedish agency Carlsson & Broman.
Over the years, Absolut Vodka became Vin & Sprit’s signature product and the most popular foreign vodka brand in the United States. Thanks to the steadily increasing export, it was possible to build a new, modern factory in Åhus. The success also had a positive effect on the farmers in southern Sweden, whose autumn wheat crop provided the basis of the natural ingredients together with the spring water. At the same time, the marketing of Absolut Vodka continued to break new ground with adverts that sometimes reached cult status. An example is the iconic ad with a satellite image of Manhattan, where Central Park provided the outline of the bottle.
The rumor of the Absolut bottle made it to Studio 54 – the club where Carillon’s CEO Michel Roux used to spend time with his friend Andy Warhol. In 1985, Warhol decided to paint the bottle, and Absolut Warhol was presented in 1986. Warhol also encouraged artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf to work with Absolut.
The collaboration between Absolut and more or less well-known artists marked the beginning of a completely new niche in marketing. The thought-provoking contemporary art resonated with completely new target groups. The initiative showed that it is possible to combine advertising and art. The Absolut Art Collection consists of over 850 significant works of art. It belongs to and is displayed by The Museum of Spirits foundation.
The phenomenon of Absolut vodka
The launch of Absolut Vodka is an important chapter in advertising and design history. It is also a great example of one of Sweden’s most successful exports. Many articles and essays have analyzed the phenomenon, and there are several interesting books on the subject. An example is Richard W. Lewis’ Absolut Book – The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story and the sequel Absolute Sequel, which takes a holistic approach to the history of marketing. Lewis was the creative director of the Absolut account at the TBWA advertising agency in New York for many years. In the book Värdet av konst – för människa, näringsliv och samhälle (The value of art – for man, business and society), Karolina and Erik Modig study how companies and society can develop through art, and the Absolut case is one of several case studies in the book. You can also read the fascinating story of L.O. Smith, the man behind the seal on the bottle, in Pelle Berglund’s extensive biography The vodka king: The story of L.O. Smith, published by Näringslivshistoria.
Absolut Vodka is a living and ever–changing brand with a solid history and traditions that go back to L.O. Smith in the 19th century.