Transsexuals and vodka: Korea’s decadent diveAbsolut is cultivating a high-end image for its vodka and gaining a foothold in trendy bars even though the country doesn’t have a strong taste for the drink, according to brand strategists.
When the Swedish spirits company came to Korea in 1998, the market for vodka was close to nil. Korean drinkers, who prefer strong liquor, already had far too many choices of distilled spirits and also consumed much soju, the powerful, clear native rice spirit.
For many years, a gin and tonic cocktail was common, but a vodka and tonic was almost unheard of in bars. As the country has become more open to foreign brands and Koreans tasted it overseas, the vodka has become somewhat of a trendy drink.
Claire Lee, the brand manager, says unlike cheaper vodka sold in liquor stores, Absolut has secured its position in the country’s high-end import liquor market.
“The perception partly has to do with the fact that Absolut first targeted upscale bars in Cheongdam-dong, and Koreans categorize vodka in the same high-end class as whiskey,” she says.
Similar to how high-end fashion brands gain popularity, a brand must be first accepted by opinion leaders and trendsetters in Cheongdam-dong and spread to hip areas in Gangnam and Hongdae. According to Ms. Lee, Absolut has cultivated Korea’s vodka market, which is still considered small. But, the market is now shared with other luxury vodka brands, such as Velvedere and Chopin.
Andrew McDonald, Absolut’s director of global accounts who is based in Stockholm, visited Tribeca Club in Cheongdam-dong last week to launch a new flavor, Mandarin.
“Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world for Absolut, which saw 55 percent growth in the past year mainly because of the booming economy in the region,” he says.
Mr. McDonald, a native of London who commutes to Stockholm to work, is familiar with the Korean beverage market. He first came to Korea 24 years ago when he worked for Seagram, which had a joint venture with Doosan Group.
He joined Absolut ― the world’s third largest spirits company which sells 8.5 million cases of vodka per year ― after it was sold to Vivendi in 2001.
Not all countries in the Asia-Pacific region will get the sweet orange-like flavor, he said. Out of 10 countries in the region, this year only China, Korea, Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand will be introduced to Mandarin. Mr. McDonald says whether a particular flavor will work in certain countries determines the introduction of Absolut’s seven flavors; only two flavors, Citron and Vanilla, are currently imported to Korea.
He says the Korean market is still very young, and the sales volume of Absolut is very small ― about 25,000 to 30,000 cases per year ― but small didn’t seem to fit the theme, as the launching event last week offered all-you-can-drink Absolut cocktails to more than 1,000 revelers.
“The Korean market is a jewel...the best in every way ― except for its size. It’s responsive, and consumers are vibrant,” Mr. McDonald said, pointing at the young crowd jam-packing the entire two-story club, eager to get a taste of the new vodka, while watching cocktail shows and performances by transsexual dancers.
“The brand is recognized as a young and fashionable,” he said. “What’s happening today is similar to what a lot of young people are doing in major cities around the world.”
Continuing with the brand’s globally fashionable image, by the end of this year, Absolut will launch an international campaign titled “Absolut Metropolis” through which street-style fashion of various cities will be introduced, Mr. McDonald said.
For the technology-savvy Korean market, Mr. McDonald has recently tried a new advertising tactic.
“TBWA, our advertising agency in Seoul, suggested that we send out text messages to 55,000 mobile phone users,” he said. “We have yet to see the actual result, but it’s the first time in the world we have tried such a new method.”
by Ines Cho