Sitting in the Absolut Elyx house, the hybrid brand house/personal residence of Elyx CEO Jonas Tåhlin, I feel distinctly uncool. When I say uncool, I don’t mean ironically uncool, the sort of feeling a hipster might get when walking into a shiny nightclub. I mean I feel patently square. The sprawling penthouse is filled to the brim with Instagram-worthy visuals: copper pineapples lining the wooden bookshelf, textured flamingo wallpaper in the bathrooms, a beautiful bar with rectangular bottles of Absolut Elyx. It’s all beautiful. Beautiful in an intentionally unintentional way.
Absolut vodka has been around since the late nineteenth century, but the Absolut most of us know was propelled to fame by their iconic campaign with ad agency TBWA, which ran for a mind-boggling 25 years. If you were around in the ’80s and ’90s, chances are you saw the ads somewhere – plastered on a billboard, stamped on the back of a magazine. It didn’t matter if you were a legal drinker or an elementary school kid collecting them – you saw the ads, you admired them. This was the rare marketing campaign that was culturally appreciated. The ads were both visually adamant yet predictable and wonderfully simple. You remember them, don’t you? Each one featured a depiction of an Absolut bottle with some sort of theme, then the theme stated explicitly under the picture.
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The ads were works of genuine artistry. Indeed, Absolut commissioned Andy Warhol and other prominent artists to design branded creations for the Swedish vodka. Absolut was the vodka for artists and musicians – rich artists and musicians – and those who aspired to live like them. The ads showed sophistication and luxury, but it was always a subtle luxury, a sort of alternative coolness. It was even referenced in Rent’s song La Vie Boheme, “To Absolut – to choice – To the Village Voice…” It was the vodka equivalent of a hippy in a Porsche: opulence with a soul, or, alternatively, corporate bohemianism. However you want to think of it, the ad campaign worked. Absolut was cool. U.S. sales jumped from 10,000 cases sold in 1980, to 4.5 million cases sold in 2000.
It was the vodka equivalent of a hippy in a Porsche: opulence with a soul, or, alternatively, corporate bohemianism.
On the contrary, Grey Goose, which was introduced to the U.S. market in 1997, had a very different advertising approach. Grey Goose, the world’s first “super-premium” vodka (read: it was just a tad more expensive than everything else), was a flashy bottle to show off and drink in a dance club – not a lounge, not a bar, a dance club. The vodka is name-dropped in more hip hop songs than I can count. Actually, I can count them – Rap Genius delivers over 2,400 “Grey Goose” results. The French vodka emblemized glamour.
Grey Goose has never outsold Absolut in the U.S. according to Euromonitor, but it is coming progressively closer to doing so. Perhaps this is in part due to Goose gaining more cultural visibility than Absolut from the early twenty-first century to today. Absolut concluded their epic TBWA campaign, in part because, as Tåhlin told me when I recently visited the Elyx house, “all good things must come to an end,” because digitization was turning print ads progressively more obsolete, but perhaps, also because “artsy” advertising was no longer resonating with their target demographic. It’s no coincidence that Goose’s popularity coincided with the age of reality television. A new trend had started: the trend of obviousness, putting everything out on the table, and shamelessly showing off. Remember, this was a time when labels were king. To wear Abercrombie & Fitch and its offshoots was to don a status symbol. What was actually good about the clothes, the vodka, and Paris Hilton? No one really knew, but that wasn’t the point. You were paying for a name, not a valued product.
But trends are yet again shifting. People don’t want to wear Abercrombie, they want to be idiosyncratic, picking out items from thrift shops (or stuff that looks like it). And while people still crave Kim Kardashian, Reality TV appears to be on the decline. Instead, smarter shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men are taking their place. And drinkers are becoming interested in, or at least geekier about, what they’re drinking.
Whiskey is what your grandparents drank, and that’s become cool again…
Sales of “craft spirits” – particularly whiskey – have been soaring in the U.S. Just as the number of microbreweries exploded in the 1990’s, it seems that craft distilleries are now popping up left and right, with whiskey leading the charge. While vodka still owns roughly a quarter of spirits sales by volume in the U.S., growth has been stagnate for almost half a decade. Whiskey has now replaced vodka as the fastest growing spirit category. Why? Because it’s become completely passé to drink vodka. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “Part of the problem for vodka has been attracting younger drinkers. Once seen as an exciting alternative to the brown spirits favored by their parents, vodka is now viewed as too mainstream for newly legal drinkers in the U.S.” Vodka, like Abercrombie and American Idol, has become too on the nose. Whiskey is what your grandparents drank, and that’s become cool again, like the vinyl your grandparents listened to and the old school clothing your grandparents wore. Whiskey has become vintage.
Not only that, but part of the appeal of the craft whiskey movement is the story behind the whiskey. You know how it goes: our distillery, built on a hundred year old farm, takes the finest corn and wheat and uses a century-old family recipe to produce the finest bourbon in all the land. These stories of so-called craftsmanship convey value that a club goer wouldn’t care about, but that a modern day, hip, self-aware drinker will. Geeking out about process and stories is part of the fun of enjoying craft whiskey – even if half of those stories are, frankly, rubbish. The appeal is still very much present, so present that big brands are copying small brands with their craftspeak.
So where does Absolut find itself amidst this craft whiskey fever? It seems that they’ve seized upon this trend of “uncool” coolness. With the launch of their new vodka, Elyx, Absolut isn’t choosing to go after Goose or other vodka brands, they’re courting whiskey drinkers. One look at the Absolut Elyx House will tell you that.
The Elyx House glitters with copper. There are copper accents everywhere, from the tiny copper pin I’m gifted to the copper-hued bottles of Elyx. Why? To represent Absolut Elyx’s copper still. Any craft distillery (perhaps even any distillery period) worth its salt distills their product in copper stills. It’s far from unusual, so why is Elyx emphasizing it? Because the mighty image of the copper still depicts “craft,” much like a set of chef knives might represent upscale cuisine. The idea is that Elyx is handcrafted – luxurious, but handcrafted. Tåhlin tells me that the theme of the house is “raw luxe,” lush, but hospitable, like the craft cocktail bars that are becoming more and more popular.
There’s also a framed photo of Chloë Sevigny, Elyx’s first muse, on the wall – which I find perfect. The Beatrice Inn-frequenting actress who was “discovered” has starred in both gritty films like Kids and mainstream movies like American Psycho and Boys Don’t Cry. I remember her most recently from the lighthearted show The Mindy Project. She captures the exact quasi-bohemia of both Absolut’s early ads and the craft spirits movement in general. She is hipsterism personified.
The Elyx house is very much a reflection of Absolut’s website, which is filled with content. If you skimmed it, you might not even realize it’s all branded. In fact, of the navigation tabs at the top, the category “products” is second to last, with “drinks” being the very last tab. There are posts about “music & arts” festival Coachella, a picture of a tattooed bartender with a shaker, and a city guide to New Orleans. Like the Elyx house, it’s so counter culture vogue I shiver. And then, of course, there are Absolut’s various experiential collaborations with artists and musicians. Musicians are challenged to create Absolut pop-up bars. Like Warhol, the key is that these are successful, wealthy artists. They are influencers of the chicest degree.
Elyx is very good, it could be the couture of vodka, but luxury – even luxury produced on a small scale – doesn’t equal integrity.
In a way, the brand is presenting too many messages, and the nature of it is borderline schizophrenic. It’s pleasing stuff: good pictures, trendy topics, influencer engagement, but it doesn’t give an assertive brand picture like the Absolut of the ’80s and ’90s. On the Elyx website, the new vodka itself is described as both “handcrafted luxury,” and “single estate handcrafted vodka.” It’s advertised as a vodka with “integrity” – but what does that mean? Integrity, a word we’ve come to associate with the blood, sweat and tears of the boutique distilling movement, doesn’t seem to make sense here. Elyx is very good, it could be the couture of vodka, but luxury – even luxury produced on a small scale – doesn’t align well with integrity.
While it seems Absolut is making headway in reintroducing vodka as in-vogue in a subtle way, they still face another large hurdle. People are predisposed to think of vodka as either being flavorless or, even worse, flavored. Tåhlin tells me that one of Elyx’s missions is to re-educate drinkers and show them vodka is not tasteless – which is why they are probably co-opting much of the language used to describe craft whiskey. Indeed, that’s been much of the buzz behind Elyx: that it’s a vodka that’s supposed to taste like something, but not in an overt, saccharine way. It seems that Absolut is pushing through this challenge by aiming to make young drinkers forget they are drinking vodka at all and make them think they’re drinking whiskey. That’s why the use of the word “luxury” is incongruous with the rest of the message. When a handcrafted item is expensive, it’s typically because that product is supposedly costly to make. This is, after all, how Tåhlin explains the high price point of Elyx. But when you put “luxury” in front of “handcrafted,” the price now seems to dictate the quality. You don’t see Pappy Van Winkle pitching itself as a luxury brand, despite its stratospheric price.
Ultimately it’s dubious as to whether or not Absolut’s hip approach will successfully appropriate the language – and success – of the craft and whiskey drinking markets. It will be incredibly hard for the vodka giant to come back with a campaign that sets the booze branding standard quite like their run with TBWA did. With their Absolut campaign, they set the trend in alcohol marketing, but here, they’re clearly following one. By their own admission, Absolut no longer works with one advertising agency, which is both exploratory and questionable and could be the reason for the confused messaging. Their new approach to marketing is smart, even ahead of the curve in relation to other vodka brands, but it’s not groundbreakingly different from what many of their whiskey competitors are doing. I’m not sure it’s Absolut.
Elyx House photos courtesy of Absolut