Absolut Vodka turns 40 on 17 April this year, and the transparent beverage, bottled in Åhus in southern Sweden, has become America’s largest vodka import and the third best-selling vodka in the world. Every year, almost 100 000 boxes of both the pure and the flavored variants are sold around the world. An incomparable feat, not the least considering how difficult it is to establish a new vodka brand and that the bottle and its logo are more or less unchanged since the end of the1970s.
“It’s clear that you feel pride when traveling and see the bottles wherever you go,” says Hans Brindfors, who as a promising young art director at Carlsson & Broman created the bottle in the late 1970s before becoming a world-renowned design guru.
The journey started when co-owner and creative director Gunnar Broman who in the mid-1970s was assigned by state-owned liquor company Vin & Sprit to investigate the feasibility of selling Swedish liquor abroad. A few years earlier, well-renowned ad man Broman and art director and designer Brindfors convinced all of Sweden to drink the inexpensive wine Kir, and they had also made local beer brand Pripps Blå a market leader in just six months. Forty percent of beer-shoppers purchased Pripps and it was not just younger people, who had been the intended target group. This had all happened under the watchful eyes of Pripps AB’s chairman, Lars Lindmark, who in 1974 became the CEO of Vin & Sprit. Lindmark’s mandate was to modernize the state-owned company. And what could be more modern than a major launch in the American market – the world’s largest – and making Swedish liquor an export success?
“It’s was a difficult market. It still is. Just a few years ago I worked with launching a new vodka in the same market,” says Hans Brindfors. “A new vodka was introduced in the US every other day, often from major brands with huge budgets backing them up. By the end of the year, only two had survived.”
Lars Lindmark assembled a team to study the market, and as far as which advertising agency would take on the job, the choice was easy.
“Vin & Sprit wanted to sell aquavit abroad and we conducted a survey that showed that white spirits were on the way up, so we decided to make a premium variant,” says Gunnar Broman.
Based on the results of the study, Broman went to work at his office in the former flat of the old liquor king, LO Smith, in central Stockholm. There were soon six different blends of various liquors and flavors. Broman, Brindfors and project manager Peter Ekelund from Vin & Sprit traveled to America to test their ideas. It was vodka that attracted the most attention and one of the bottles stood out. It was small, transparent and lacked a label, with the text printed directly on the bottle. The name was taken from an older Swedish product – Absolut rent brännvin (“Absolute pure vodka”), once created by LO Smith. The year 1869 was added to the bottle, marking the year that LO Smith in his newly acquired factory on Reimersholme in Stockholm began continuous distillation. Surveys showed that people liked it, but few believed in it. It did not look the way vodka bottles should look – and the experts argued that it would be invisible on the liquor shelves in its transparent guise.
“Do it wrong,” Broman said and took it to the next step.
“Eklund was smart,” says Hans Brindfors. “When the bottle that stood outperformed weakly in the surveys, he reported home that we had a very strong idea that set it apart from all the others.”
In an interview in the Swedish daily Kristianstadsbladet from 2009, Broman described the process: “Eklund was young, just 23. He didn’t understand what was impossible, and he never understood where his authority began and where it ended.”
“I threatened to quit if they changed the bottle,” says Gunnar Broman.“There were no alternatives.”
Broman’s inspiration for the bottle came from an old chemist variant he’d found in an antique shop in Stockholm’s Old Town. With further inspiration from the book American bottles that Brindfors had read, the design became unique. Finding packaging provider that could deliver on that design took some time, though.
“I found a glassworks in France that was willing to take on the job, and once we got the okay, we created fifty variants and took them to the US. I booked a separate seat on the flight just for the bottles.”
Several liquor distributors in the US quickly rejected the Absolut bottle. Brindfors and Broman spent considerable time in the air, commuting to meetings in the US with refinements of the product as well as meetings with new potential distributors.
In the middle of it all, Brindfors received an offer he just couldn’t refuse – if he started his own agency, he would get the entire Linjeflyg airline account. He left Broman & Carlsson and the Absolut bottle the same day. The final adjustments were made by Broman’s agency colleague Lars-Börje Carlsson. The original idea had been enhanced with a seal portraying LO Smith, the man behind the original “absolute pure vodka” when the Carillon brand and sales director Michel Roux accepted the distribution assignment. The unique font on the bottle was created with inspiration from an older advertisement for Cadillac that Brindfors had come across.
Looking at the six platforms that Brindfors and Broman took to the first meeting, it is clear that the final design drew inspiration from several of them and that the original concept had proven itself. Even the image of LO Smith was there early on. Some minor adjustments were made along the way, such as removing the word “pure” and the “e” from Absolute – a visual factor that marketers said strengthened associations with Sweden. 40 years later, the bottle is still the same.
“It’s a simple model and it’s unique, the shape is easy to fill, and you can easily work further within the same framework,” says Hans Brindfors.
Although Brindfors left the original project, the fact remains that apart from a gap of a few years, he has worked continuously with Absolut. Since the beginning of the 1980s, Brindfors and his team at the agency he started, have created more than 50 variants for the brand, and in addition, also severalspecial versions as the flavors increased.
Absolut Vodka was introduced in spring of 1979, and with the success of the product, the plant in Åhus, which was on the verge of closing its doors for good, got a new lifeline. During the early 1980s and into the 1990s, Absolut Vodka conquered the global market, proving that vodka did not need or pretend to be Russian. Lars Lindmark’s vision was fulfilled – the export success is one of Sweden’s biggest ever. With the help of meticulous research and creative work of world-class, Gunnar Broman and Hans Brindfors created the conditions for Absolut Vodka’s success. That they were so confident in their ingenuity was absolutely crucial.
This article, and in particular how the unique design was perceived, is based on interviews in 2019 with Gunnar Broman and Hans Brindfors, as well as research into secondary sources.