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Absolut Celebrates Its 30 Years of Marketing to Gay Consumers

Marketers like to mark milestones, whether it is the 50th anniversary of the debut of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the 125th anniversary of the introduction of Coca-Cola or the 150th anniversary of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Now, a brand is about to celebrate something that typically passes unnoticed: the 30th anniversary of a media placement.

Absolut, the Swedish vodka sold by Pernod Ricard, is introducing a campaign that commemorates 30 years of the brand’s efforts to reach American consumers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, a market now known as the L.G.B.T. community. The starting point came when advertisements for Absolut ran in 1981 in two magazines read by gay men, The Advocate and After Dark.

Such target marketing was highly unusual three decades ago, when almost all mainstay brands shied from the market for fear of alienating the larger, mainstream market. Those first Absolut ads were later followed with events in bars, donations to charities and causes, outdoor advertising and, most recently, sponsorship of a series on the Logo cable channel, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The existence of Logo, a commercial channel directed at L.G.B.T. viewers, underscores how far Madison Avenue has come since those initial Absolut print ads. Among the blue-chip marketers that are also seeking L.G.B.T. consumers are American Airlines, Campbell Soup, General Motors, Macy’s, Orbitz, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Wells Fargo.

Absolut became the “first big brand to commit to and pursue the market” by being “the first continuously present major brand in gay media,” said Michael Wilke, the former executive director of the Commercial Closet Association who is now senior United States consultant for Out Now Consulting.

Another sign of the times: Mr. Wilke was recently interviewed by The Kansas City Star about a campaign for wedding bands by Tivol, a local jewelry retailer, which included some print and outdoor ads that depict two men.

The yearlong Absolut anniversary campaign carries the theme “Absolut Outrageous” — the letters “Out” are in pink — and includes this phrase: “Celebrating 30 years of going out and coming out.” The budget is estimated at more than $4 million.

There will be online and outdoor ads, events and a presence in social media like Facebook. A print ad will appear in publications read primarily by gay men and lesbians like The Advocate, Instinct and Out, as well as in two general-market magazines, Vanity Fair and Vogue.

The print ad was created in collaboration by Pernod Ricard USA; TBWA/Chiat/Day in New York, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group, which has been producing Absolut campaigns since 1980; SPI Marketing in New York, which has been the Absolut agency for the L.G.B.T. market for 15 years; and the photographer David LaChapelle, whose fantastic image — featuring closets, divas, disco turntables, rainbows, the performance artist Amanda Lepore and unicorns — is the centerpiece of the ad.

“It’s the celebration of a loyal affair between us and the L.G.B.T. community,” said Maxime Kouchnir, vice president for the vodka portfolio at Pernod Ricard USA in New York, “a journey together.”

“Yes, we’re a business,” he added, “but at the end of the day it’s our choice to have invested for 30 years behind this” market as part of being an “open-minded brand.”

Absolut has taken that approach through three marketers: Pernod Ricard, Seagram and Carillon Importers. It was Michel Roux, the president and chief executive of Carillon, who first decided that Absolut should pursue gay and lesbian consumers because, he was fond of saying, they were trendsetters whose brand-buying habits would eventually be adopted by younger, hipper segments of the market.

“Absolut set the bar for virtually every company speaking to the L.G.B.T. consumer,” said Todd Evans, president and chief executive at Rivendell Media in Mountainside, N.J., which handled media services for Absolut in 1981 — and still does.

Mr. Evans recalled how Absolut not only bought ad pages in magazines like The Advocate, but also bought back covers at a time when “we couldn’t get anyone” to take such highly visible positions.

“And Absolut locked them up for two years,” he added.

At first, Absolut ran its regular ads in the L.G.B.T. media; the 1981 placements were “Absolut Perfection,” with a halo hovering over the bottle. More recently, the brand has sponsored ads that are tailored for the market.

Examples in addition to “Absolut Outrageous” include “Absolut Glaad,” honoring the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; “Absolut Out,” billboards with three-dimensional closets, the doors open; and “Absolut Commitment,” a wedding cake topped by a pair of (identical) bottles.

Because “relevance is very much important,” said Sue Anderson, global creative director on the Absolut account at TBWA/Chiat/Day, the goal is to mix reminders about the brand’s heritage, aimed at longtime customers, with themes that appeal to “a younger generation.”

Hoj Jomehri, creative director on Absolut at the agency, said: “The look and the feel of the campaign is contemporary. We’re approaching it as a celebration in a modern way that looks forward to more support of the community.”

According to Scott Seitz, president at SPI Marketing, Absolut has earned the loyalty of the “more mature gay and lesbian consumer,” ages 40 and older, who recall the brand’s history and its initiatives like fund-raising for AIDS charities.

“But we’re not going to see that with the millennial consumer, whose attitude is what have we done the last six months,” Mr. Seitz said.

The campaign’s appearance in realms like television and digital and social media “gives us a platform for that conversation with the younger consumer,” he added, and “to stay more relevant, more on that target.”

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. October 26, 2011

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.