In 2012, Absolut worked with the electric dance music trio Swedish House Mafia to create what would become an incredibly popular music video that, over two years later, has racked up more than 41 million views on YouTube. Despite the numbers, though, the vodka giant doesn't consider the campaign a branding slam dunk.
By some metrics, the Absolut Greyhound marketing effort worked. "It became an extremely exciting, vibrant, fun, premium, cool content," Jonas Tåhlin, Absolut's VP of Global Marketing told Fast Company. "It became a social media smash hit."
To call it a failure would be too harsh, he added. "I would never say that," he said. "I would say I don't think we were particularly insightful around it. It's just cool. It doesn't tell you about the brand."
Absolut did, however, think about its brand when putting together the ad, an evolution of its longstanding collaboration with musicians and artists. The vodka took off in the U.S. thanks to its presence in New York's Studio 54 back in the '80s. There, the now-iconic bottle caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who created the first of many commissioned Absolut artworks in 1986. The story via Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story goes:
Over dinner one night, Warhol tells Michel [Roux] that he's enthralled by the artfulness of the Absolut bottle. He reminds him that while he doesn't drink alcohol, he sometimes uses Absolut as a perfume . . . Warhol proposes painting his own interpretation of the Absolut Vodka bottle . . . When Warhol was finished, [Roux] loved it and thought it would make a great Absolut ad.
That was the beginning of working with artists for Absolut's famous print advertising campaign, which ran for over 25 years. But in a digital, interactive world, leaning on a print media legacy started to feel too safe, and the company discontinued what ad curmudgeon CopyRanter called "the best print campaign in the history of advertising" in 2007.
Tåhlin points to Red Bull's media house as inspiration for the new direction. Many brands have since followed the success of Red Bull's efforts by starting their own media studios and creating original content.
By collaborating with a musical artist for the Absolut Greyhound campaign, the vodka company ventured into the world of content-based marketing, while staying true to its DNA. Unfortunately, the music video didn't say enough about Absolut. A lot of people who watched the clip thought Absolut paid for a product placement. Others didn't realize that without the vodka maker neither the song nor the video would exist.
What was a very popular video wasn't a very powerful brand message. "You have to distinguish sometimes between what is cool watched content versus content that builds the brand," Tåhlin said. Absolut Greyhound didn't get it done.
Going forward, Absolut is focusing on what it calls an "experiential strategy." Instead of commissioning something static, like a YouTube video, the vodka maker asks artists to create experiences. Since Absolut already has a strong connection to nightlife, having artists curate club-like events—where Absolut Vodka drinks are served, of course—will leave a lasting mark on consumers.
The first incarnations of this strategy are Art Bars, a nod to the Studio 54 days. Artists are given one directive: create the best bar ever for Absolut. So far, artists such as Ry Rocklen and Charli XCX have created pop-up bars at Art Basil and SXSW.
The connection to Absolut is more apparent in the bars, which are branded with Absolut's logo and filled with Absolut's alcohol. Creating a living art project also draws people to the brand because they remember the interesting experience. That, Tåhlin argues, is more indelible than some 41 million people watching a YouTube video. "As a brand, you cannot build coolness," he said. "You have to be relevant and be real, and that's not what we did with the video."