Tipplers’ taste for vodka–the leading distilled spirit worldwide–and manufacturers’ willingness to turn out a constant stream of new brands, types and flavors could soon be matched only by the variety of properties receiving sponsorship from vodka marketers.

Competition is especially intense in the super-premium category, which relies heavily on marketing and advertising to hype brands that sell for at least twice the price of standard vodkas, as well as to differentiate those top-shelf names from each other.

Marketing even extends to the name of the category, with distillers preferring to promote their super-premium brands as “luxury vodkas.” The segment is the fastest growing portion of the vodka category, with sales rising nearly 18 percent per year over the past three years, according to research firm Adams Beverage Group.

In their battle for recognition and market share in the crowded field, a number of industry players intend to increase their sponsorship spending this year.

Case in point: Ukrainian distiller The Soyuz-Victan Co. recently signed a five-year deal with USA Hockey to promote the U.S. rollout of its SV Supreme brand.

It plans to sign additional ties with music festivals and other sports properties.

“Sponsorship is a tool we have used for a long time in Europe, and we are actively looking for venues that can help us build visibility here in the United States,” said Mark McKethan, U.S. sales manager for importer Soyuz-Victan USA, LLC.

The company is focusing on properties located in the seven markets where it will launch SV Supreme this summer: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and the New York City tri-state area.

McKethan says the company projects sales of 20,000 cases this year with a goal of one million cases by 2010. “As we grow, our sponsorship portfolio will grow as well,” he said, noting that the company has sponsored concerts in Europe by artists ranging from Moby to Depeche Mode to Luciano Pavarotti, in addition to backing festivals and sports properties.

Soyuz-Victan USA will activate its tie to the U.S. National Hockey Team by hosting distributors at games and pitching stories about the partnership to beverage trade publications. “We’re the fifth largest international spirits company, but nobody in North America knows about us,” McKethan said. “We need to work with partners to get our name out.”

The sponsorship builds on The Soyuz-Victan Co.’s sponsorship of the Int’l Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championships and of the Russian Hockey Federation, including the national team and championships.

Other Vodka Brands Serve Up Deals
More established players in the super-premium segment also are adding sponsorships as a key element in their marketing mix.

Bacardi U.S.A., Inc. sponsors the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands and a handful of golf properties on behalf of Grey Goose, a brand it acquired two years ago from Sidney Frank Importing Co.

Grey Goose sponsors several PGA Tour stops–including the Bank of America Colonial, Booz Allen Classic and Nissan Open–to build visibility and entertain retailers and distributors, said Aleco Azqueta, the brand’s senior marketing manager.

Golf also is the focus of Nolet Spirits, U.S.A.’s Ketel One, which last year became the first spirits company to have a business relationship with the PGA Tour. The tie includes several components, including status as the preferred vodka of PGA Tour Tournament Players Clubs and a partnership with the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Selling Tips: Super-premium Vodkas
Properties should keep the following points in mind when pitching brands in the category:

Provide access to affluent consumers and niche audiences. Because of their high price points, super-premium vodkas target upscale consumers and those who aspire to an affluent lifestyle.

Grey Goose’s horse racing ties “target owners and suite holders and people that want to be associated with those groups,” Azqueta said.

Other companies use sponsorship to target specific ethnic or lifestyle groups. For example, Moët Hennessy USA’s Belvedere vodka has titled a concert series at New York City’s Apollo Theater to reach African-Americans, a demographic that accounted for 30 percent of the brand’s sales last year, said Melissa Frank, brand director, vodkas.

Moët Hennessy, a unit of LVMH Inc.–the U.S. operation of Parisian luxury brand giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA–plans to expand Belvedere’s multicultural outreach effort this summer by sponsoring concerts in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C., Frank said.

Offer pouring rights and tasting opportunities. Properties should allow distillers to educate consumers about their brands. For example, Grey Goose looks for pouring rights and opportunities to distribute recipe books, while Moët Hennessy will host a Chopin Class of Its Own next month at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to teach consumers and the trade about its Chopin vodka.

“It gives us a place where we can explain the difference between potato, rye and oat vodkas,” Frank said.

Don’t ignore other vodkas. Makers of both premium and mass-market “value” vodkas also have large marketing budgets to tap.

A key trend in the overall vodka category has been the rise of flavored vodkas, which represent nearly 14 percent of the category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Flavored vodkas account for 50 percent of Pernod Ricard USA, Inc.’s Stolichnaya sales and are growing 70 percent faster than their unflavored sibling.

“We want to align with events where our flavors might match, such as a fruit-themed festival,” said Stoli brand director Susan Kilgore. “That has a lot of appeal to us.”