Three business lessons from Smirnoff

The Smirnoff story is a fascinating one. Back in the 1860s, Smirnoff founder Pyotr Smirnov was nearly driven out of business by the clergy. He silenced the anti-vodka sermons by making regular - and generous - charitable contributions to the Church. That's problem-solving. By the turn of the century, his small distillery has become a vast manufacturing hub, producing four million cases of vodka per year. When Pyotr Smirnov died, his business was worth 20 million roubles (that's $265m in today's money). Here are three key lessons from the Smirnoff brand.

Cater to the masses

Smirnoff vodka comes in a whole variety of weird and wonderful flavours. Whether you've got a taste for Green Apple, Watermelon or the artisan Smirnoff Black brand, there's something for everyone.

This diversification was a no brainer for the brand: flavoured vodkas are created by simply steeping fruit or other ingredients in the pure vodka. It takes a little more production time, but if it converts sales, the cost is well worth it.

There's also a point of sale benefit to producing a range of similar products - you take up more shelf space. If you produce a range of flavours/colours/versions, the retailer is likely to stock a higher quantity. This means more consumer interest, more brand exposure and ultimately more sales.

Target the youth

There's no denying it, young people like to spend money. No kids, no mortgage, no obligations, all these contribute to considerable spending power.

When the 'alcopop' phenomenon exploded onto the scene back in the 1980s, Bacardi Breezer and Hooch were quick to satisfy the sugary alcohol cravings of a new generation of party animals. But by 1990, Smirnoff had grabbed a swathe of the £1.3bn market with its Smirnoff Ice offering: vodka and lemonade with a citrus kick.

Even when fashions changed and young trendy folk felt the frosty glass bottles were the province of a past, 'uncool' era, Smirnoff adapted. It collaborated with soft drink giant Coca Cola - the biggest brand on the planet - to lure in a new demographic. These days, it's never been easier for young professionals to get their Smirnoff kick -tins of vodka and cola or lemonade are available in every supermarket.

Collaborate and innovate

Smirnoff has teamed up with a number of big brands to increase its customer base. Time Out launched an iPhone app as a joint venture with Smirnoff at the end of last year to keep users up to date with the latest happenings and events in their location. The project tapped into a new market - apps were relatively new to the corporate world - and marked a fresh and exciting new direction for the brand.

And Smirnoff was not content to merely report the biggest events in major cities across the world. The brand decided to create its own. At the moment, Smirnoff is in the middle of an ambitious Nightlife Exchange Project, which sees party-goers from cities across the world 'swapping' their best nights out. Some 14 countries are taking part, creating a global, connected network of vodka drinkers.

It's a big, one of a kind campaign that has really got people talking across every medium, from bars and clubs to Twitter and Youtube. And this isn't Smirnoff collaborating with a brand - it's using its own customers to create unique content.

Small businesses can flex their collaborative muscles in a similar way, for a fraction of the marketing budget, by using social media to unite and inspire their customers. It's never been easier to create partners and brand ambassadors. You just need a good idea to get people talking.

Picture: Ben Sutherland

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