Food & Beverage

Absolut goes for the art market with new venture

When most people think of Absolut, they think of vodka. However, the Pernod Ricard-owned brand now wants people to associate its name with fine art.

Absolut Art is an online retailer with a mission to make art mainstream enough that everyone can hang a piece on their walls. The business sells curated prints for $250 to $6,000, with a sweet spot of $250 to $500.

"We have such a strong brand equity in the Absolut brand that we wanted to see if there was a possibility to create brand equity outside (spirits)," said Absolut's head of innovations, Lena Danielsson. "We saw that first of all there is a huge opportunity when it comes to future revenue in the art industry, but second, we have a history in the area. In our brand DNA, art is fundamentally rooted."

Danielsson said that Absolut decided it wanted to branch out about 2 ½ years ago, and considered 40 different ventures to dive into. After talking to consumers, gallery owners and artists, the company felt it would still be considered credible even in the elitist art community. Interestingly, Absolut Art is not tied to any overt marketing initiatives.

"We're acting as a start-up and expanding the Absolut brand into another category that is independent from the vodka," said Nahema Mehta, CEO of Absolut Art.

It may seem strange for the vodka brand to veer off in a new direction, but it's something that many organizations are attempting in order to expand their brand into a lifestyle. Clothing companies Armani and Bulgari own several hotels across the world. Red Bull is almost as known for its caffeinated beverages as much as its action sports media content. Virgin Group operates everything from spacecraft to films to banking. Converse offers Converse Rubber Tracks, a way for up-and-coming bands to record music for free.

"This is a classic brand expansion play, but with any brand extension you have to ask does the extension fit the customer's expectations?" said David Gaspar, managing director at advisory firm DDG. "It's all about authenticity — and millennials care about authenticity."

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Absolut's Mehta was formerly the founder of Art Remba, an art sales and subscription service that allows people to rent-to-own pieces. When she was approached by the vodka company, Mehta admitted she was a bit skeptical and worried this would be an advertising ploy.

During her talks with the company and research into the history of the brand, she realized that there was an "authentic" link to the art world. Absolut has been known for its iconic magazine ads throughout the 1980s and 1990s, created by advertising agency TBWA. It's also been giving out the Absolut Art Award since 2009, which is presented to modern artists and art writers.

"For me, I wasn't about selling vodka as an end goal," Mehta said. "I was about democratizing access to art, which is something I was always passionate about. When I realized that was their end goal too, that's what convinced me."

Artists are invited by curators to work with Absolut Art with no preset requirements. Prints range from actual photography to images of sculpted works. The pieces are not used in any advertising, nor is there any connection to alcohol. According to Absolut Art Berlin curator Francesca Gavin, production costs for the prints are covered by Absolut, and artists get to take home 50 percent of the profits. Consumers simply head to the website, click on the works they want to buy and purchase them online.

"You have an opportunity to see work (online) without any of the trepidation or intimidation that you would feel in a gallery if you're not from that background," Gavin explained. "It's an amazing medium for (art) education."

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What also works in Absolut's favor is that the people who are most likely to be its art customers grew up cutting out its ads and putting them up on their walls, DDG's Gaspar said. It cemented itself as a tastemaker back then, and millennials may still trust their opinion now.

Julia Beardwood, founding partner of branding agency Beardwood & Co., said at the very least Absolut is restarting the conversation about its brand, and because the company has always aligned itself with art, it doesn't seem like a foreign concept.

"I think Absolut has lost a lot of relevancy since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s," she said. "It has been surpassed a bit by some of the Grey Gooses and Kettle Ones of the world, and Smirnoff made a comeback on the midend tier. Any thing that gets people talking about it again is good."

Even though the idea might make sense, one big question remains, Gaspar pointed out.

"The idea can be great, but the question is, is the art any good?"