A passion for controversial campaigns, long term impacts of the pandemic on the spirits industry and why she would never post a tweet on national security. Paula Eriksson, VP Corporate Affairs and Communications at The Absolut Company, doesn’t shy away from tough questions. We had a talk with her on how Sweden’s biggest food export brand Absolut has kept their pace over the course of history and why the future looks ever so bright and shiny, despite the gloomy times that’s currently preceding.
You’ve been with The Absolut Company (TAC) for many years and have seen changes in attitudes and behaviors towards spirits and alcohol brands. How would you describe that people outside the organization are perceiving TAC today?
– When I started at Absolut, we were a part of government owned Vin & Sprit. Then we were sold to Pernod Ricard and became a regular, privately owned company. In the beginning, focused on being fully integrated into the Pernod Ricard-world and adjust to their culture. And, with all the efforts put into assimilation, less energy was spent on maintaining and keeping good relations with Swedish public authorities and stakeholders. Earlier, when we were a government owned corporation, we had close and natural contacts with ministries and politicians but once we were settled in the Pernod Ricard-universe we realized that some of our old contacts were not even sure that we were still present in Sweden anymore. In recent years, we have therefore gone through great lengths to reconnect with our former contacts. We emphasize the fact that Absolut Vodka is Sweden’s single largest food export and that everything we manufacture is still produced in Sweden. Actually, my perception is that Swedish people are often positively surprised when they learn that we’re still made in Åhus and that we export 99 percent of everything we produce.
How do you work to stay relevant?
– For us it’s always a matter of finding and initiating collaborations with others. As an example, we didn’t create the brand Absolut Vodka just by ourselves – it’s always been done in collaboration with the most creative and forward-thinking people of their time. So, we are constantly working on our networks to be in contact with those who are shaping the present – right here and right now. For us, this is a way of ensuring that we’re relevant to in our time and for our time. That’s super important for a brand like Absolut. We need to be agile and quick to forecast trends and influences in order to be able to have a rewarding dialogue with people. For example, in the 80’s our focus was on art and artists, while today we’re perhaps more into people within the start-up scene. We are constantly trying to capture and absorb important learnings from what’s happening around us, locally and globally.
How do you and TAC work to avoid being accused of communicative “washing”?
– In my opinion, the truth is the communicator’s greatest asset. To be transparent about what you do – without hiding anything or exaggerating matters. It may not always be so easy to live up to this motto, but for Absolut, I think it’s relatively easy for us as we have all our production in Sweden. But, at the same time, we have other TAC brands that operate in several countries, such as Malibu and Kahlua, and both these brands are managed globally from Stockholm. And there, the supply chains are much more complicated. That’s also why we invest a lot of time and energy to map out and understand how we can influence these. As I see it, as a large company, you have an obligation to be transparent with what you know and what you may not know. My experience is that consumers are both accepting and forgiving, as long as you are open to and about your challenges and have a plan for how to deal with them.
Which market do you see as the most challenging from a communications perspective?
– My initial instinct is to say Sweden, although it obviously depends a little on what you mean by challenging. In Sweden, it is a challenge that there is a limited understanding domestically for our industry and our specific terms and conditions. We have quite unique historical conditions here at home given the long Vin & Sprit monopoly. This means that we have to think in a completely different way about how, where, when and what we communicate in Sweden. But there’s obviously other markets with different challenges that we need to address. In the US, for example, need to tell a new generation about all the fantastic values that Absolut stands for.
Which values do you think Absolut creates?
– I think that a lot of the values we create are based on our passion for progression. We are constantly trying to find new circular sustainability models and innovative solutions and we always aim to have an entrepreneurial mindset. In Sweden, we are a well-integrated part of the economic ecosystem and in our large network we can contribute with a lot of good things that helps to pave the way for a more circular economy. Two examples; we sell stillage – which is a by-product from the fermentation – to livestock farmers and we sell C02 from our fermentation to algae cultivation. We create job opportunities for around 2000 people in southern Sweden. Both directly in the form of our 500 employees at TAC, but also by generating additional business in and around Åhus. We have a visitor center, so we are part of the tourism industry now too. And we also contribute a lot by being a big advocate of Swedish values. We believe in openness and inclusiveness regardless of origin, sexual orientation or gender. This is always expressed in some way in our campaigns. One might think that we’re stating the obvious, but sadly you don’t have to travel far beyond our borders to learn that this kind of position can be perceived as quite provocative and controversial. But we want to contribute to a development where individuals can live their lives as they wish.
Alcohol and communication can, of course, be seen as not entirely unproblematic. How do you and TAC work with responsible consumption and responsible communication?
– When it comes to consumption, it is always a matter of treading with great cautions. I believe that there is a legitimate position for our products in-between abstention and abuse. Where the actual boundary goes is obviously individual, but in general, I think you can say that when your alcohol consumption is becoming a problem for either yourself or for others, then you’ve most likely passed it. When it comes to our communications, we are always extremely careful – both in what we say and what we don’t say as well as in what we do and don’t do. Our communication should be responsible and follow good taste and good manners and we would, for example, never try to piggyback on people’s insecurities nor imply that one becomes more popular or successful by consuming our products. Or that you perform better. And, of course, we never target or address minors. We sell premium products and our whole business idea is based on people drinking less, but better.
Art, fashion, culture and gastronomy are all natural parts of the Absolut brand – how does TAC work communicatively to tie these various initiatives together?
– Everything we do is held together by our motto Passion for Progression. By that, we mean that we like to be a part of and a driver for progress. This is nothing new to us. It actually goes back all the way to L.O. Smith and the way he liked to do business. He was a curious guy and we’ve tried to incorporate his sense of curiosity into the foundation of the company. We want to be relevant to our consumers and to be present in a context that’s natural and familiar to them. But – and this is important – we want to be there with integrity. For us, as I said earlier, it is about sharing and disseminating our values of openness and of having an inclusive attitude and constantly seeking partnerships that can help us develop and progress. Regardless of issues, matters, genres or sectors.
Absolut has, over the years, built brand identity by questioning norms and stick it’s neck out. Which is your favorite campaign?
– And this is something that I, personally, is very proud of. One of my favorite campaigns is actually our latest major initiative #SexResponsibly. I think it, in a good way, touches on and raises a difficult question that is extra relevant to us as a spirit producer. Alcohol can never be used as an excuse. There´s no exceptions to that fact. But there are also other historical initiatives that I’m very fond of. One example is that we were so early in our support of the LGBT movement, already in the beginning of the 80s. And I’m proud that we didn’t back away when HIV came, I mean – we even organized a fundraiser to support HIV-infected people.
The Swedish food and beverage industry is going through one of its most trying times right now. What do you at TAC do to support them?
– In almost all of our communications at the moment, we try to find ways to lift how we can support small producers who suffer extra from the fact that bars and restaurants are unable to keep up their usual pace. For many smaller businesses these are their most important distribution channel. We try to support them by paying attention to their situation and help market the immense variety of fantastic products that you, as a Swedish consumer, can order at Systembolaget. At the same time, we also encourage and remind people to support bars and restaurants. Buy take-away or gift cards that can be used later. Help to put a silver lining on their existence now, in the same way that they help you in more normal times. As a company, we try to avoid canceling as much as possible and instead reschedule or postpone planned events, so that they can be held when society returns to a more ordinary everyday life again.
How are you affected yourself?
– We are very much affected by the fact that people cannot travel or go out as they used to before covid-19. Our whole business is built around socializing and social interaction. But we are also fortunate to be part of a large and stabile group during these trying times. It is a very privileged position to be part of a big company with so many strong and beloved brands and that also has a sound strategy on how to act during extraordinary circumstances.
How do you forsee the development of Swedish gastronomy over the next 10 years?
– I think it might be good to look in the rearview mirror sometimes to better be able to predict what’s coming ahead. We have had an incredible gastronomical development at home over the past 10 years. You can almost talk about a Swedish cooking wonder. The quality of the craft now is so incredibly much higher compared to 10-20 years ago. Today, there is so much knowledge and passion amongst Swedish chefs, combined with a kind of humble compromise. You dare to take your skills to the limit and see what you might find. And I think this mindset will continue and prosper and also transfer into the way that we, as food and drink producers, will think and act. We will see more niche producers making amazing products. And we will see an increasing willingness amongst consumers to pay for quality. I also think we will start to talk more about regional cuisine, about terroir and about origin, and not just talk about “Swedish” food. There is clearly an increased pressure from consumers that wants to know where the products they’re being served comes from and how they are manufactured. This means that we need to accept a greater responsibility at the producer level. We need more transparency and more knowledge. Consumers are discerning and as a producer, you must be able to answer whether what you produce or manufacture is justifiable.
You have, not least because being so active on Twitter, from time to time been acting spokesperson for the entire TAC. How do you handle that?
– Well, for starters, I do consider my Twitter account my own. With that said, I am also aware that I use it as a professional, meaning for work purposes. So what I say might have an effect on the company, and this is something I always consider before posting a tweet. Bur all misinterpretations are my own and it is entirely up to me and my own judgment govern what I publish. To some extent that naturally holds me back from posting to much private stuff on my Twitter, as they run the risk of being seen in the light of the company. I won’t post any security policy-related comments for example.
Do you have any role models and if so which ones?
– One person I admire greatly is the murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. She was basically a just an ordinary history teacher who had an inner conviction to seek the truth about human rights. Someone, who so selflessly stands up against a system, is impressive. Her integrity, despite living with a death threat, is astounding and I think it is very important that she – and others who have acted unselfishly because they believe in something greater than themselves – are never forgotten.
What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?
– I dreamed of becoming a journalist, but, unfortunately, I think I am a little too uncritically. I tried my luck at it a few times, but I never really got the hang of it. But I’m also very much into problem solving, so engineer is also something I might would have considered today. I feel great inner calm and satisfaction when I solve a problem.
Next person in line to be interviewed is Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu. What question would you like me to ask him?
What’s it like to lead to a global brand like Malibu from Sweden, given that the brands biggest markets are the United States and other key markets include the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain? How do you know what consumers around the world actually want and how they like to be addressed?