The significance of the concept of brand equity is fundamental to the modern understanding of marketing practices. Magnusson et al. (2019) define the customer-based brand equity approach as a body of associations that a consumer holds to a brand in their mind. For one, this issue is especially relevant when it comes to the effect of the country-of-origin. The case of Stolichnaya is a great example of how a brand’s association with a country might be almost a guarantee to the product’s quality – or a shameful stain to dispose of completely.
Product categories are an important and well-researched country-of-origin moderator. Magnusson et al. (2019) argue that product categories play a decisive role whenever a brand-country association has a meaningful impact on consumer evaluation. For example, consumer attitudes towards Russian products might be unfavorable due to negative attitude towards the country as a whole. However, in regards to specific product categories, association to Russia might be advantageous: such includes vodka, due to Russian vodka generally being perceived as that of high quality. It suggests that the country-of-origin effect works on several and/or differentiated levels.
Stolichnaya vodka is the perfect instance of such associations working for the benefit of the brand and then against it. The golden letters at the background of the building that used to be Moskva hotel are still recognizable by many. According to Ryabikova (2021), Stolichnaya was extremely popular in America in the 1970s and 1980s; moreover, it had its own slogan there: “Only vodka from Russia is genuine Russian vodka!”. However, its popularity in the United States diminished significantly due to the adverse response to the Soviet Union downing Korean Air Lines flight in 1983, reinforced by the state of the Cold War (Thomas, 2022). Stolichnaya’s place of the ultimate popular was taken by the Swedish vodka Absolut, although the Russian brand remained in the American market.
Associations with Russia have caused Stolichnaya trouble more recently, too. According to Nurin (2018), in 2013, #DumpStoli – Stoli being a nickname for the brand’s name – became a trend on social media. Stolichnaya was encouraged to be boycotted due to its Russian heritage due to the passing of discriminatory laws against gay people by the Russian government; the crisis, however, was survived. Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the brand’s owners to officially change their iconic name to Stoli. The associations with what is currently going on seem to be too strong of a blow for Stolichnaya to survive.
In any case, it does not mean much to the United States; the country is reported to be switching from vodka to whiskey and tequila. According to Thomas (2022), by the end of this year, the whiskey category is expected to overtake vodka by volume. This is great news for one of the most popular and beloved whiskey brands, Jack Daniel’s. When it comes to secondary brand associations, one of them is an image of a gentleman. Jack Daniel’s long history, exquisite design of the bottle, and their approach to advertisements gives the impression that this whiskey is the drink for the classiest. Another association, however strange it may look, is a rock star image. Thanks to the bran’s use of popular musicians as ambassadors for the brand, every Jack Daniel’s drinker can associate themselves with the greats. Both of these give brand a stronger appeal, attracting the consumers and money, as they are two classical images from which a person can choose the one they like better.
Additional association that could strengthen the brand’s image might be the one of a cowboy. It is very much in a spirit of that old times feel that Jack Daniel’s uses to promote its brand and could reinforce its associations with America. As one can see, proper marketing is one of the main things that determine the brand’s success. A company might want to rebrand or add another layer to their branding to keep pace with the times. However, sometimes companies rebrand to avoid negative associations and take a stand. Either way, if a brand is great, it will find ways to survive.
Magnusson, P., Westjohn, S. A., & Sirianni, N. J. (2019). Beyond country image favorability: How brand positioning via country personality stereotypes enhances brand evaluations. Journal of International Business Studies, 50(3), 318-338.
Nurin, T. (2018). Stoli vodka releases tribute bottle to Harvey Milk, a continued effort in supporting LGBTQ community. Forbes.
Ryabikova, V. (2021). 10 brands born in the USSR and popular still. Russia Beyond.
Thomas, I. (2022). For vodka, America’s most-popular spirit, the trouble started before Russia invaded Ukraine. CNBC.