An exclusive interview with Franz Drack, Global Marketing Manager of ABSOLUT Vodka. Last December I had the great opportunity to present ‘How Cool Brands Stay Hot‘ at the global headquarters of ABSOLUT Vodka, part of Pernod Ricard, in Stockholm. After the in-company workshop, Global Marketing Manager Franz Drack took some time for an interview with me for our blog.
One of the latest big campaigns you did with ABSOLUT was quite a cool one with Swedish House Mafia. Can you explain us the reason-why behind this campaign?
Franz Drack: It was the last large campaign that we did with ABSOLUT called ‘ABSOLUT Greyhound’. We indeed had a great collaboration with Swedish House Mafia for that campaign, and for us it was very interesting. Before we started going into this campaign, we had a lot of discussions internally on how to actually reach out to our younger target. ABSOLUT was founded at the end of the 70s and we had a very strong following in the 90s, and the brand was very, very present. Then times changed a little and in our company, it was kind of an unspoken law that we just had to stay consistent and we continued doing what we had always been doing.
I think that, with the Greyhound campaign, for the first time, we kind of realised that we had to change our approach to keep the connection with the GenY target group. So we actually stepped away from merely telling a communication message in a top-down way and replaced it with showing what the brand is all about. So instead of saying ‘ABSOLUT creates exceptional cocktails’ we basically showed ‘What would an exceptional ABSOLUT cocktail look like? What would it sound like? What kind of experience and world would it create?‘. And that was basically the core idea we had. Because we thought that just telling a story implied no longer connecting with the Millennial consumers of today. GenY is looking for stimulation, for something exciting, and when we created the campaign in collaboration with Swedish House Mafia, there was a certain energy level. There was a certain kind of pressure; it was like ‘they are important to us as collaborators’. So we spent a lot of time discussing this with the agency, trying to get more energy into every detail of the campaign.
Looking at the end result, it’s really a music video first of all, it’s not an ABSOLUT commercial, and it’s very much driven by a certain level of urgency and there is also a certain energy level. It explains what the drink is all about and what the product actually does. Instead of saying what the product enables consumers (exceptional cocktails), we are basically showing what it does (creating exceptional experiences). So the messaging change was one thing. What also changed was that we put digital into the core of the campaign. Before it was always about print ads or TV ads, but this time the core of the campaign was actually a Facebook application. This was the heart where you could find all the content, which could reach out into other channels like YouTube, Bebo, Tumbler, wherever. We kept in mind that it had to be stunning content and easy to share for people. So this is how the whole campaign was built. It was very interesting because it took us quite a while to explain this to people internally: we’re not just doing a TV ad and then creating a website; we’re creating an online experience which was then amplified by a TVC and by events. But the core was all about the digital experience.
Can you tell me a bit more about the events you organised, along with the launch of the social ABSOLUT Greyhound campaign?
Franz Drack: We did a sponsorship of the Swedish House Mafia World Tour. Basically what we tried to do is to create exceptional experiences for the consumer. We realised that experiences these days are very important, as they are very personal and a social currency to share with your friends. If you go to a concert, then you are the one who was there and who can take pictures. Everything else you can basically take or buy online from somewhere else, just Google it and you’ll find it and get it home delivered. 10 years ago maybe, when you were buying a special record or a special pair of jeans, that helped you to separate yourself from others. But now that special pair of jeans is just available online. So to differentiate yourself as a GenY from others, it’s all about experiences, because that cannot be replicated that easily. I think that’s also the reason live concerts are booming. It is also one of the reasons why we to do this sponsorship.
Did you choose Swedish House Mafia because of the word Swedish in their name, which is in line with the Swedish heritage of ABSOLUT?
Franz Drack: No, we chose them for 3 reasons. The first was of course that there was ‘Swedish’ and we thought one Swedish icon connecting with another Swedish icon is a good idea. But then they were also on the tipping point into the mainstream, about a year ago, which was very interesting for us. It was about relating to somebody with a very clear positioning who still has a very broad appeal to people. And then of course the energy level of Swedish House Mafia gigs, that was the third thing. So for us it was very important to have a collaboration that can make the ground shake, basically. And that’s how we selected them.
You are stressing that energy level a lot in this campaign. Why would you associate ABSOLUT vodka with energy levels? It’s not that it’s an energy drink? So where does this idea come from?
Franz Drack: ABSOLUT is all about expressing the creativity, but it’s very dangerous to end up with an academic approach and to end up showcasing very intellectual things. So we tried to find how we could actually create something where youth was not thinking ‘This is intellectually stimulating’ but where they just say ‘This is cool, this is great, I like that’. We realised that this can be done either by a higher level of energy, or by the complete absence of energy. When working with music, it’s probably better to take this extreme. And then we took this kind of intellectual approach out of creativity… Being creative, being your own photographer, being your own writer, being your creator is completely normal to this generation, like eating bread. And they have the tools for that. So it’s nothing special if you as a brand say ‘We are creative’. Then our target says ‘Well, I’m creative too, so what?’ When you look at how we work together with Swedish House Mafia, we really don’t just come in with the big money to be a sponsor like anyone could do that. We have now been working with them for almost 1.5 years and we selected the songs together, they came up with some ideas and then we came up with the video idea. It was just kind of a co-creation with them, which sometimes was a very challenging process. It’s much easier when you just say ‘Shut up, we are paying you to do what the creative director tells you’, but then you never get to the point where it’s fully endorsed by your collaborators.
Swedish House Mafia is currently on their end tour. Is that disappointing for ABSOLUT or will you cope with that?
Franz Drack: I’m not sure if this is really their final final tour. But if I think about exceptional experiences, they are maybe not the most cutting-edge deejays in the world, but they really move a lot of people in a very strong way, and I think that’s something that we want to be associated with. That’s why we work with them. It’s just nice how it has worked so far. We are working on a new kind of activation with them at the moment. It is a campaign that’s called ABSOLUT Tribute and it basically focusses on the relationship between the fans and Swedish House Mafia. Together with the fans, we are creating a tribute to the band and the band is giving something back to the fans by a free concert, a streamed concert. ABSOLUT is basically there to enable things and to make things happen and everybody is happy that you are providing the platforms and the tools. For me that is basically the interesting thing; we moved from messaging, a year ago, to content. And now we are moving from content to tools. So now we have started discussions, with IT companies for example, and we really want to offer more than a mere “Buy this product”.
With tools, you mean social tools or apps?
Franz Drack: Yes, apps, and things that make the lives of consumers easier. How can we further amplify and improve the party experience. How can we do that by not just having a campaign showing nice people having a party, but by really offering people solutions. That’s going to be the role for brands moving forward, because with only a nicely shot campaign you will fail to stand out. You really have to bring something new to the table; but if you create something, it has to connect to your DNA, which is also the case here. We are really good at vodka, we know a lot about vodka and we know a lot about drinks, so we will not create the next music player or the next tablet, we leave this to people who are good at that. But we can probably offer something when it comes to drinks, to creativity, and to enabling creativity to people. That’s where we stay, because anything else would be a little bit too gigantesque or too big.
Of course in your industry many brands are using music as a passion point, to connect with young people. How would you summarize the unique entrance or unique point you perhaps found with this tribute campaign or the Swedish House Mafia cooperation?
Franz Drack: With Swedish House Mafia we tried to move beyond a partnership towards a co-creation. If you look at ABSOLUT, the brand has always been about teamwork and creating something together. So even when the brand was launched in the US, this was not one person, it was twenty people working together. It’s this kind of approach to things that we have. When we work with collaborators: we want to bring them in and make sure that they can also influence the content, and I think that sets us apart from other brands. If you just do sponsoring, it never runs so deep, and for me it’s a little bit like a UFO, these brands land in the back garden, there are a lot of lights, and you walk out there and think ‘Wow this is really cool’. And then suddenly it’s gone again.
We believe in long-term partnerships, we work quite long with artists, we invite them back to projects, that’s our approach, that’s always what we at ABSOLUT did, so… I think that’s the difference. For the ABSOLUT Tribute, there was just the idea: “You want to be part of the experience but you don’t want to be a disturbance”. What we could have easily done is before each Swedish House Mafia concert we get our president on stage saying ‘Hello everybody, welcome to the Swedish House Mafia concert, I am so-and-so from ABSOLUT and I wish you a really nice evening’, and then people would probably try to boo him off stage and then you are disturbing the experience. We just launched this like 2 weeks ago and are using existing platforms like Instagram, and I’m so surprised by the quality of the entries. Instagram is linked to your profile, so you don’t want to upload things that are nasty or something…
What will you do with all that content in the end?
Franz Drack: Well, the idea is to create a book that we’re going to hand over to the band, and we’ll make this book available to the fans, so they can download it as a PDF. We also have a crew filming fans on a few of the concerts, and we’re going to create a short mini documentary; but we basically hand over all the content to our collaborators, Swedish House Mafia, and they’re working on a larger movie. We are creating content and we make it available to our collaborators.
One of the biggest challenges in marketing to Millennials is to keep the interest of the stimulation junkies. At a certain tipping point of success many brands lose their momentum and might become a “cool dad in the disco” type of brand. How do you keep ABSOLUT cool when there are continuously new vodka and other liquor brands entering the market space?
Franz Drack: I think we will always see brands come and go in this category as entry barriers are very low. Brands are coming in for a few years and then they disappear again. We are just there. But I think that we realised a brand like ABSOLUT cannot play equally strong in every imaginable touch point. That is why we see an opportunity in a portfolio of ABSOLUT products, serving different situational needs to consumers. An example could be our super premium ABSOLUT ELYX which we just launched in the US. I think that’s the only way you can actually react to the dynamics of a competitive environment and less loyal consumers. I think that’s the way to do it. Otherwise you stretch the brand too much that it’s not credible anymore for your consumer. Even BMW has a sports car and they have a family car, offering different models for different people. But still, it’s the same brand, it has the same DNA, in everything, and that is also what we try to do. In the end, of course, design helps us tremendously. We are a design-driven company, and we see design as a clear competitive advantage that we have. We have this internal creative thing that makes not only our bottle but every marketing campaign beautiful. Compared to our competitors I think you can always spot something that is from ABSOLUT, because it’s just very aesthetically well designed. And that of course also helps. Because I think that for generation Y design is something very important. They can clearly tell what’s good design and what’s not.
Would you say the design aspect is the main unique point of ABSOLUT, the core DNA strength of the brand?
Franz Drack: I personally think it’s several things. At the end of the day, it is still high quality vodka. So it’s not only the advertising or the bottle. In our company jargon, we call it a point of parity, it allows you to play at a game but it doesn’t mean that you will win that game. But I think that what creates our advantage, is first of all the design element and then the element that we are constantly reinventing ourselves. We have this kind of urge to constantly push the boundaries and to create something new. That’s something where we as a brand connect very strongly with a general human kind of motivation. ‘You never want to sit still, you always want to create something new, do something or be something’. And you probably go out of your comfort zone to create something. It allows you to grow as a person. With our brand, we do the same thing and it’s what people recognize in our brand. ‘Wow they did it again, how do they always come up with these crazy ideas’… but still we’re always working on the same canvas, not changing the bottle, always staying very consistent.
There are some restrictions in keeping a cool brand like ABSOLUT hot. You can play with flavours, you can play a bit with the bottle, but it should still be the iconic bottle. You can play with the drinking occasions and innovations related to them. But many of these things are easy to copy, actually. To me ABSOLUT was one of the first to offer different flavours. If you look at the spirits industry today, all types of spirits have different flavours: it’s so easy to copy.
Franz Drack: That’s true, but the way the conversation in flavours runs today is very boring. It’s basically an ‘OK let’s do ice cream flavour or let’s do…’. I think we have to find a new way of leading this conversation. So we take a step back and try not to look too much at what other people are doing. Then new ideas come up and you create something new. The biggest challenge in marketing is that you always have to stay on this kind of edge and you constantly have to create new grounds. Because if you’re not doing that, other people will. And then you’re no longer the leading brand. It creates a certain paranoia, which is actually a good thing. When agencies present stuff we’re always wondering ‘Is this good enough or can we get it better?’ And the second check is: ‘Is this something new, does it bring something new to the table?’. Because we know that a competitive advantage disappears in maximum 1 or 2 years. I think it is very dangerous for a brand when you start to sit back and say ‘look at us, we are such a cool brand’. That’s when the problem starts. We deeply respect our competition, and if you’re not humble about that, then there’s a huge risk that you will go under, maybe not next year but surely in 5 years.
Earlier in the interview you said something about the way that the brand or even the marketing has changed from messaging to facilitating people’s lives. What would be other ways in which ABSOLUT’s marketing today has changed, compared with 5 or 10 years ago?
Franz Drack: What has changed a lot is that the competition got so much harder. In our main market, like in the US, we have new launches every week almost. It’s a different pace, so it’s much harder, and then you don’t have so many different buttons to press. You can only talk about certain aspects of your brand, you’re locked by increasing legal restrictions on one side, and on the other hand you have a lot of competitors who are all trying to do similar things, so your room for manoeuvring gets smaller. What has changed quite dramatically for us is that 10 years ago we were one of the few brands with these kinds of creative collaborations, so-called brand partnerships. In the last 10 years, if you look at the music industry, the main income has switched from CDs to tours and brand partnerships. So 10 years ago we could just ring an artist and say ‘We’re from ABSOLUT, we want to do something with you, we pay you for your cost, so come and talk to us’, but nowadays you talk about a lot of money, because many new players popped up and it got more difficult for us. Suddenly you talk about sums that you can’t afford, or that you don’t want to pay. And then you have to find new ways. These creative collaborations have been discovered as ‘the flavour of the month’ among marketers, so everybody from several brands across industries is doing creative collaborations. That is a problem for ABSOLUT, because young consumers don’t know that you did that first, they only see the loudest and the brightest. So you have to find new ways of doing it. And that’s why we started changing; first we changed our approach, how we address our consumers, but then also the kind of content we are creating. Does it really have to be this global super star doing something fast or can it be something more personal, more direct, and a bit more raw?
I’m very interested in the actual results of the Greyhound campaign for ABSOLUT. Can you share a few?
Franz Drack: Yes, I have something. For the Greyhound campaign we had 29 million views on YouTube, and we reached 42 million Twitter accounts with 95% positive reactions and so you can really see how it helped us. And we saw a significant positive uplift in spontaneous awareness, brand consideration and sales in the US market.