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
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