INTERNATIONAL: THE WORLD’S TOP CLIENTS: Smirnoff shows its bottle to cross borders - Witty, stylish ads for the drinks brand have brought huge global success, Michele Martin writes

You know a campaign is truly global when you see the same poster whether you are standing in Oxford Circus tube or on the Tokyo subway.

You know a campaign is truly global when you see the same poster

whether you are standing in Oxford Circus tube or on the Tokyo


Whether it’s worth missing your train for is another matter


Smirnoff is one of those rare brands that can claim to be both

ubiquitous and eye-catching. Based on the premise that life through a

bottle of Smirnoff is a lot more exciting than what goes on outside it,

the vodka’s advertising has already won major awards at virtually every

competition since first appearing in 1993.

It most recently picked up awards for the ’Rio’ poster, showing the

city’s statue of Christ with a football, and ’Hollywood’, which depicts

the ’w’ in the hillside sign as four bonking feet.

No wonder, then, that both the client and its global agency, Lowe

Howard-Spink, sound remarkably pleased with themselves. Lowes’ board

account director on the business, Chris Hunton, says: ’The ’through the

bottle’ campaign proves that a good, simple ad idea can work across

borders without being bland.’

Smirnoff’s vice-president of international marketing, Tim Dewey,

indicates that the brand has set the pace within its parent company,

IDV: ’The company’s brands have not been globally driven historically,

but we are looking at it increasingly because of Smirnoff’s


But it was not always this cosy for Smirnoff. In fact, as recently as

five years ago, the brand’s packaging, advertising and agency roster was

’all over the place’, according to Dewey. Its rapid turnaround says a

great deal about the influence that a few key people can have on a

brand’s future and the joys of tight decision-making teams. It also

proves that some categories, such as alcohol, are easier to manipulate

internationally than others.

Smirnoff’s story begins in 1987 when the brand’s then owners, Heublein,

sold it to IDV. The company inherited an eclectic marketing structure

exacerbated by third-party brand owners in a number of different markets

and their individual ad agencies. Nevertheless, the arrangement remained

unchanged until 1991.

Then, management looked at the success of Baileys, IDV’s first globally

managed brand, and decided its newcomer was ripe for similar


In business terms, the move towards centralisation meant establishing

the Pierre Smirnoff Company to control the Smirnoff name, limiting the

number of licensees operating the brand internationally and prioritising

35 key markets.

In marketing terms, the decision led to a radical reassessment to

discover the ’essence’ of Smirnoff through quantitative and qualitative


Its conclusions were that a shot of the vodka lived up to the term and

delivered ’pure enjoyment’. This was the basis of the brief that was

finally delivered to agencies in a worldwide review in 1991. The

campaign that won Lowes the account turned that proposition into one of

’pure thrill’.

It perhaps says something about the quality of this brand rethink as

well as the creativity at Lowes that, while some campaigns take time to

hit their stride, Smirnoff hit the bullseye first time. The

Tarsem-directed ’message in a bottle’ launch commercial, showing the

darker side of passengers on an ocean liner, picked up a Cannes gold

award in 1993.

But, with just one TV epic made every two to three years, it has been

the quality of the 10 to 12 print ads each year that has really built

the brand. The press and poster work immediately established Smirnoff as

a witty, stylish drink with a dark side. One of the first ads showed the

Statue of Liberty transformed into a Marilyn Monroe lookalike with her

skirt billowing up. Later executions included a flock of sheep with a

wolf in its midst.

It also says a great deal for the cohesiveness of the proposition that

Smirnoff has found international ads actually work better than regional

ones. There have been some national ads, including a Japanese poster

showing the country’s famous bullet train turning into a roller-coaster.

But they are increasingly rare. In fact, most run everywhere unless

doing so would create regional problems.

An ad showing a naked bottom peeping through a Picasso painting, for

example, never appeared in the UK because of regulations linking alcohol

advertising to sex. Another showing lipstick on a priest’s collar

bypassed Ireland for religious reasons.

Dewey says that although 10 per cent of work is done nationally by

non-Lowes agencies, he generally steers clear of such ads: ’I looked

into the idea of local executions but found that consumers didn’t want

parochial advertising. One of the big things about Smirnoff is its

internationalism and any move away from that was not welcomed by


Dewey is also generous about the contribution Lowes has made: ’It’s very

difficult for other agencies to just come in and do executions. The

campaign isn’t about change for change’s sake. The clever bit is getting

the relationship right between what’s inside and outside the bottle.

Lowes understands that.’

He adds that Lowes’ ideas have been key to standardising the Smirnoff

image. ’It helped that there are more similarities between drinks in

international markets than between other brands. But our task was made

easier by the fact that Lowes came up with such a flexible advertising


The leanness of operation at the client end has also helped focus the

brand’s identity. The marketing team based at Pierre Smirnoff in London

has been whittled down from an original figure of 40 to just 15. The

London team puts all briefs and creative work past regional marketing

teams for their input, or as Dewey puts it: ’We get as much consensus as

possible without making things fuzzy.’

Add to this the fact that regional teams often consist of just a few

people - the Americas’ regional representative is Dewey himself - and

the compactness of the operation becomes apparent.

With such success under Smirnoff’s belt, the next question must be

whether the formula is flexible enough to continue indefinitely. Dewey

is certain that it is, promising that an imminent new commercial will

prove his point. He even promises that Smirnoff Black, the two-year-old

sister brand to the main Smirnoff ’red’ label, will take a similar

route. It will be interesting to see whether IDV’s entire drinks cabinet

follows suit.