Sobieski Vodka Has Anything But a Sob Story

Brand: Sobieski vodka
Headquarters: Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Product: Premium Polish vodka
U.S. launch date: 2007
Sales: 200,000 cases in the U.S. in its first year
Target demo: Vodka drinkers of any age (well, over 21, of course)
Competition: All vodka brands regardless of price, from $10 to $50
Distribution: In all 50 states
Claims: “Consumers don’t have to pay a king’s ransom to get superb vodka.”
Secret weapon: $10.99 price tag
New product: Flavored vodkas

Sorry, Russia. Vodka originated in Poland. That’s just one sobering fact people learned from Sobieski’s “Truth in Vodka” advertising campaign. The effort originally launched in the U.S. a little over one year ago to introduce the nice-priced premium spirit to the trade market.

And, apparently, it worked. Even though the vodka shelf is saturated with brands running the price gamut from cheap to steep and new SKUs seem to debut daily, Sobieski has had the most successful liquor launch in the U.S., with sales of 200,000 cases even before one year was up.

Created by New York advertising agency Meter Industries, the “Truth” work pointed out that paying through the nose for what’s in the bottle is pointless. Rather than ante up a $40-50 premium to support marketing gimmicks and notice-me packaging, Sobieski slyly suggested that shoppers focus on a bottle’s contents, which in its case is Poland’s No. 1 premium vodka and one of the fastest-growing international spirits. Sobieski, incidentally, sells for $10.99 per 750 ml bottle because the price isn’t inflated by these irrelevant marketing expenditures.
“We designed a bottle to suit the spirit inside,” one Sobieski ad reads. “Notice the lack of la-di-da.”

Another tackles a silly competitor claim that sounds meaningful, but isn’t. “Distilled 5x, 8x, 39x. Stop the madness. How about distilled enough,” that execution reads.

“Eight times distilled—it doesn’t mean anything!” said Timo Sutinen, vp, marketing and business development at Imperial Brands, the exclusive importer of Sobieski and a subsidiary of Belvedere S.A. (which used to  own Belvédère Vodka, but doesn’t anymore). “Distilleries like ours use a continuous distillation system, and that’s much more important than how many times it’s distilled. While it’s not a lie, we wanted to break these myths and tell people what matters in vodka.”

Mainly, that’s flavor, or lack of it, depending upon one’s personal taste. Americans prefer a vodka that blends well with mixers and doesn’t leave a hangover, Sutinen said, while European drinkers tend to appreciate vodkas with more character.

Sobieski, which is known for being smooth yet flavorful, is produced from Dankowski rye at a Polish distillery that was established in 1846. “This is not two guys from Ohio coming up with new vodka,” he said, scoffing at the marketing claims of the vodka du jour. “Nothing against Ohio, but our folks have been making vodka for hundreds of years so they know what they’re doing.”

As if to prove its no-frills point, the brand chased its cheeky back-to-basics campaign by scoring best on some key taste-tests: French wine and spirits publication La Revue du Vin de France ranked it the No. 1 vodka out of 25 different brands, including Grey Goose, Absolut and Stolichnaya.

The initial “Truth” in vodka marketing effort included print, outdoor, digital ads and a publicity outreach. The latter led to a story in the New York Times, which caught the attention of a Madison Square Garden executive who was intrigued by the little-known brand’s bravado. He called up Sutinen, and in March, Sobieski became the official vodka of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in a multiyear partnership.