Liquid Thinking

What will become of Russian vodka brands?

and where might brands go from here?

18th May 2022

At the conflict in Ukraine shows no signs of slowing down, consumers, retailers, and brands themselves continue to turn their backs on Russia. So, what will become of Russian drinks brands?

With the violence and suffering inflicted on Ukraine visible to a concerned and outraged world, one of the few things in most people’s power to do, has been to boycott Russian-produced goods. And boycott them they have. Well in fact, they’d have to be able to find them first.

The UK government placed a 35% levy on Russian vodka back in March. Also in the UK, stores from Asda to Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and John Lewis have all removed Russian products, including Russian vodkas such as Russian Standard, Green Mark, and Beluga from their shelves. In fact, as vodka is one of the most identifiable Russian products out there, it has been the subject of the much boycott activity. Announcing its removal of Russian Standard vodka, the Co-op said it had taken the decision as an act of “solidarity with the people of Ukraine” because the product is “overtly marketed as being Russian, and produced there”.

A change of identity

In reaction, brands and producers have also been working to remove their ties with Russia. Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Carlsberg and AB InBev have all suspended or reduced operations in the nation.

And the fallout is already impacting and changing products themselves. Whereas proclaiming Russian origins used to be a badge of pride for vodka, seen as benchmark of quality, brands are now working fast to remove any association with the country. It seems the only way forward for some Russian vodkas is a change of identity.

J.J Whitley vodka, owned by Halewood, used to be distilled and bottled in Russia, has now moved production to Chorley. And now Stolichnaya, a brand which used to proclaim it was distilled in, though bottled elsewhere, has just undergone a name change to avoid controversy. The brand, now produced in Latvia has shortened its name to Stoli, to also sound less Russian.

It’s interesting too, how brands that may have had Russian roots, but have long been produced elsewhere, have gone to lengths to assure consumers that they have no connections with the nation. Head to the local landing page of Smirnoff vodka, and Diageo has made it clear – depending on the market – where the brand now has its roots. For the UK site, the first thing consumers see is a banner saying “Proudly made in Great Britain”, and a paragraph outlining a specific brand history detailing how the vodka brand came to be produced globally.

Goodbye provenance

Such a narrative is an interesting – but understandable – reversal of the marketing norms we’ve all become used to over the years, namely, of authentic origins, and an unbroken lineage from conception to today’s production. Its novel that in these tragic circumstances the only option for many brands is reinvention, at the expense of long-prized heritage and provenance.

But what to do about consumer’s inherent associations with vodka and all things Russian? For many brands with no credible ties to Russia, their packaging design has long referenced Soviet-inspired imagery in a bid to dial-up some borrowed quality cues and lineage.

So, is it time for an entire category overhaul? Though there are many vodkas that have long forged an identity all of their own – think Absolut, Ciroc, Mermaid, Black Cow, and Grey Goose to name a few – the vast majority of the category, whether they have Russian heritage or not, have hinged their names, branding, visual identity and marketing on cues associated with it.

What comes next?

However long before this current crisis, vodka has dipped in and out of moments of high-fashion and swathes of popularity, to having something of a bad rep. Faced with blistering competition from gin, its most recent evolutions have been to target the gin crowd with a marketing and innovation push on having discernible character in the liquid; think Broken Clock ‘botanical’ vodka, and Belvedere’s single estate rye bottlings, which placed an emphasis on terroir. Or else, it has courted an association with bling bling lifestyles, rap, and good living as is the case with Grey Goose and of course, Ciroc.

Could its next iteration be an alternative national pride, with globally produced gins marketing themselves primarily on their non-Russian places of production? It looks highly likely. From the Financial Times to the Telegraph, think pieces and reviews are already emerging to discuss the alternative to Russian vodka, and the championing in this case, of British brands has already begun. London gin producer, Portobello Road, has just launched an asparagus-distilled vodka. Notably marketed as a ‘British Asparagus Vodka’ it entirely eschews on potato or grain-based tradition of vodka production, distancing it further still from any Russian connotations. Expect more to come.

But what will become of Russian brands? Those that can will continue to relocate production, updating names and visual identities – not entirely, just enough – in an attempt to keep their consumer base and earned credibility but shift their identity, pushing this in their marketing. For those that can’t, expect them to lie low, not disappear, as events continue to unfold. When – if – peace returns, they’ll return too, though undoubtedly with slightly updated brand stories, speaking of individual farms, individual producers, and likely, family ties. For if there’s anything that can be relied upon in all this tragedy and suffering, it’s that humanity matters. And championing the individuals behind some of these brands, might be their only path to redemption.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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