It started with the Andy Warhol-designed bottle in 1986. Over the years, Absolut Vodka’s squat, glass-printed bottle has been the palette of its artistic ambitions and highbrow marketing. Now, Anna Kamjou, global design director of the Pernod Ricard-owned brand, says the iconic Absolut bottle is the brand’s ticket to younger consumers who are gravitating toward handcrafted spirits. Kamjou spent a year with design agency The Brand Union creating new abstract bottle designs for Absolut’s 11 flavored vodkas aimed at the under-35 crowd. (Absolut’s traditional bottle design is hampering the brand’s sexy and sophisticated reputation, per Affinnova.) Kamjou talked about how a huge company can romance its audience with design and how Absolut strives to be a global player while keeping alive an aura of artistic daring.
How is your brand different from rival vodkas?
We have this deep connection to the arts community that is blended with extreme attention to details. Most people don’t know, for instance, that before we fill our bottles, we wash them out with our vodka because we don’t want any water in the bottle. We are that anal about just a drop of water. To create the new designs on our flavored vodkas, we spend a year finding and expressing the cultural meaning of each flavor. And we used paper, pens and brushes, not computers.
How do you compete with the small-batch, handmade vodkas coming from local craft distillers?
We are a large company and aren’t trying to be a craft brand. But there are elements in our DNA that can attract the people who like craft spirits. We can compete on craftsmanship. All our vodka is made in one village with the water from one well and wheat from a certain field. The glass printing technique we use on our bottles is very hands-on. It goes back to our Swedish attention to detail. Also, in our collaboration with the arts, we try to think like artists, moving forward and pushing the boundaries. We want to be an innovative brand that is known for behaving creatively, not a big company that just talks about being creative.
Are there any new flavors on the horizon?
We have a number of innovative products available only in limited markets that will roll out in the U.S. in the next several months. We have a new amber vodka that is rested in oak barrels and another vodka blended with Sauvignon Blanc. In New Orleans, we crafted a collection of vodka flavors hand blended with herbs that will only be sold to bartenders.
Absolut’s global marketing campaign “Transform today” launched Sept. 9. What’s the connection between design strategy and marketing?
They both are expressions of our brand essence, and the key ingredient is our artistic heritage, which evolves with our continuing collaboration with the art community.
How does design help you win over younger customers who may be blasé about Absolut’s artistic heritage?
Design is a strategy and an ID for our brand. Younger people see our designs, and they tend to understand them in an intuitive way and find them emotionally engaging. They respond to the instinctive, energetic aspects of our artwork. They also see us as a challenger brand, and that’s something they can relate to.
Speaking of packaging, will you be redesigning your signature vodka bottle any time soon?
It was recently refreshed gently. It is so well-known that it’s not something you change overnight.