As a marketer, what interested me most about Linda Himelstein’s excellent new biography (The King of Vodka) about famed vodka distiller, bottler and seller, Pyotr Smirnov, was discovering the man as a truly visionary marketing pioneer.
Moscow, Russia and even Europe in the early 1870’s was awash in a sea of vodka distillers. To succeed in this overcrowded, highly competitive market, Smirnov needed to figure out how to stand out. His goal was to convince Russian peasants and nobility alike that his vodka had the smoothest taste and best quality. Although his vodka wasn’t necessarily better than some of his main competitors, he understood that perception was as important, if not more so, than reality.
Here’s what he did
He hired “peasant” men to visit taverns across Moscow, and eventually outside the city, to ask specifically for Smirnov. If the tavern didn’t stock Smirnov, they were instructed to demand it the next time they visited. They were also told to talk to other people in the bar about the high quality of Smirnov. Smirnov knew that the best way to build awareness of his brand of vodka and generate demand was to have neighbors hear praise about Smirnov from other drinkers. (Of course, we know this now well honed marketing technique today as “viral marketing).
He paid his employees well, far better than others in the industry, and treated them with respect, even paying for the education of the children of less fortunate workers. As a consequence, his employees were proud of their Smirnov affiliation and boasted to friends and family about the company and its products. (Today, we know that the first step to effective branding is to have employees be “brand ambassadors” themselves—that branding works best from the inside out).
He contributed generously to charities to endear his brand with the common people.
(Today, we know this as “social responsibility,” something all major corporations are engaged in to help advance their images beyond that of simply money making enterprises).
He recognized the value of “objective,” independent associations as endorsers of the quality and value of his products. He managed to become a merchant of the First Guild, the highest merchant ranking in Russia, associated with the upper echelons of society. He also managed, though it wasn’t easy, to secure the state emblem, the highest stamp of quality in the land, endorsed by the monarchy itself. (Today we call these “third party endorsements,” like the Good House Keeping Seal of Approval).
He recognized the power of packaging to distinguish his brand, from legitimate competitors and counterfeiters (back then there were no laws protecting copyrights and trademarks). His labels had two state coats of arms, received in 1877 and 1882 at the All-Russian Artistic-Industrial Exhibition in Moscow, and corks printed with the Smirnov logo and the State coast of arms.
And he invested heavily in information rich advertising, running a series of infomercial-like ads, announcing store locations, different products, Smirnov’s industry track record, and the superior quality of his products. He seemed to recognize that more information garnered more trust. (If he were alive today, he would no doubt be disseminating, and receiving from his customers, information about his brand interactively).