Why the Absolut Campaign Switch Worked

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by: Roger Dooley

Last year, Absolut abandoned its classic "bottle" ad campaign. That long-running series of ads featured the shape of an Absolut bottle cleverly concealed in an illustration, and was largely responsible for establishing Absolut vodka as one of the most popular and well-recognized brands in the spirits field. I was surprised by the change, but even wildly successful ad programs eventually have to break with the past.

The good news for the makers of Absolut is that their
new campaign, “An Absolut World,” has bumped their sales by almost ten
percent according to a new story in Breaking With Bottle Fires Up Absolut Sales. I think that the neuromarketing similarities of the two campaigns explain why there was no loss of momentum.

I’ve written about Absolut’s bottle ads in the past. In Art, Science, and Ads, I noted,

long-running and wildly successful ad campaign employed by Absolut
Vodka [serves] as an example of ads that appealed to our brain’s desire
to acquire information. That same campaign ties neatly into several of
Ramachandran’s key principles for effective art. The illustrations, in
many cases, are mere outlines of the product’s distinctive bottle
(isolation), and often require the viewer to study the ad for a second
to see the pattern emerge (perceptual problem solving). The ads often
are visual puns of some sort, as well. Before the term “neuromarketing”
had been coined, the Absolut ad designers had developed a long-running
campaign well-targeted to the way the human brain processes
information. Whether or not the viewer was a vodka drinker, the nature
of the ads made them very difficult to flip past without at least a
quick look.

In my earlier post, Marketing to the Infovore, I described how the brain’s reward system favors new information, one form of which is solving a problem:

highly creative images [in the Absolut ads] were not only novel, they
often contained a bit of humor or playfully incorporated some concept
that would take a bit of thought for the viewer to fully connect. From
an infovore perspective, one would have to say these images were just
about perfect – not only were they novel and unexpected, they
frequently produced a little “aha, I get it!” reward to the viewer.

Absolut World Campaign

new Absolut World campaign was in one respect a sharp break from the
old bottle series. It incorporates impossible images that invite the
viewer to imagine a more perfect world: an obviously pregnant man, a
politician giving a speech who is growing a Pinocchio-like nose, and
Times Square filled not with garish neon and video screens but rather
gently illuminated artwork. The viewer is invited to think of an
Absolut world as a sort of perfection that won’t happen. The unspoken
message is, “You’ll never see Times Square like this, but you CAN
appreciate the perfection of Absolut.”

Comparing the two
campaigns, though, the common neuromarketing characteristics are quite
remarkable. Both series offer startling and novel visual images that
are definitely hard to pass by in a magazine or on a billboard. Both
series require the viewer to decode the image in some way and will
result in a similar, “Aha! I get it!” reaction. Neither campaign is
overly puzzling or problematic, but both contain information that that
requires a bit of cognitive processing. That differs from a spirits ad
that might just show the product being enjoyed by attractive people in
an upscale environment; in that case, most of the cues (attractive man,
sexy woman, expensive restaurant background, waiter in a tuxedo, etc.)
are meant to be processed unconsciously.

The difference
between the two Absolut campaigns is simple and logical. The bottle ads
served to establish the Absolut bottle as an instantly recognizable
icon. The premium quality of the product could be established only
indirectly by using high quality, creative artwork and occasionally
through the subject of the artwork – a custom swimming pool in the
shape of the bottle, for example.

As long as the bottle
campaign ran, it may have reached a point of serious diminishing
returns – the brand was established, the bottle shape was iconic, but
there wasn’t an easy way within that campaign to further enhance the
brand image. This was confirmed in the Ad Age article by Ian Crystal,
Absolut’s brand director, who said, “A lot of our key numbers had been
flat or declining.”

The Absolut World campaign didn’t need to
establish the brand or packaging, so it could focus on the message that
Absolut vodka is the closest thing to perfection one can find in this

I remain a bit sad that new Absolut bottle ads aren’t
being created, but I commend Absolut and TBWA/Chiat/Day for
simultaneously breaking with tradition while still maintaining some of
the key elements that made the past campaign so successful