A Drink for Women Only

Sliding silently down the escalator into Moscow's metro, "respected passengers" pass dozens of billboards, including the advertisement for Damskaya vodka.

The ad features the brand's butterfly-spangled bottle against a purple background. Around the Damskaya bottle's narrow-waisted figure is a white skirt blowing upwards in a style reminiscent of the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe. The ad features the slogan "Between us, girls."

"It is always pleasant when it is made for you specially," said Anna Khalanskaya, of the marketing department of Deiros, the company that designed and manufatures Damskaya vodka.

"If it was offered at a party, of course I'd drink it. But I'd never go out and buy it specifically," said Anastasia Lesnikova, a photo editor in her 20s.

Damskaya was created two years ago, when Deiros' general director and marketing department decided to act on the fact that 45 percent of vodka drinkers in Russia are women.

"The history of Gillette razors is a perfect example. Ten years ago it was a man's product, then the company figured out women were using their razors and now women have ones specifically made for them," she said.

"This happens to any brand. Look at Gillette; look at tobacco. You get Davidoff slims, or the glamour pink packs," said Kirill Danishevsky, lead consultant at the Open Health Institute.

"From a marketing point of view it's a great idea, from a public health point of view, it's awful," he said.

"Basically, it's a very good idea if you want to narrow the mortality gap between men and women or increase fetal alcohol syndrome," Danishevsky said.

Ironically, the ad can sometimes be found next to the government's "we need your [birth] records" demographic campaign, which depicts a mother and three babies.

"It's the metro's problem. Of course we don't want our ads to hang near these social advertisements, but what can we do?" said Khalanskaya.

Local wags have commented that the perfect lineup of metro ads would be the Damskaya vodka ad, followed by a new advertisement for Ledokol, or Ice Breaker vodka, which depicts a smiling young man walking between two beautiful women over the slogan, "break down the barriers." The third billboard would be the government's campaign to raise the birthrate.

Created in 1503 by Kremlin monks -- who used it as an antiseptic before they started drinking it --vodka has been increasing in popularity worldwide, but remains identified with Russia.

The local market boasts such brands as Putinka vodka, named after outgoing President Vladimir Putin and Russky Standart, a name that stands not only for two-thirds of all premium vodka sales, but also for high quality banking in the form of Russky Standart Bank, the country's largest private bank -- both controlled by billionaire Rustam Tariko.

Huub Golsteijn / MT
Women make up an important segment of the Russian market for vodka.
Around 1.17 billion liters of vodka and other liquors were legally sold in in Russia in 2006 -- accounting for just over half of sales of all alcoholic products, which amounted to 2.12 billion liters.

Damskaya, which was launched in November 2007, is sold at Sedmoi Kontinent, Metro, Aromatny Mir, Ashan and local shops for around 300 rubles for a half-liter bottle. The female-targeted brand hopes to be selling 500,000 bottles a month by the end of 2008.

The vodka comes in upscale and mixer varieties as well as almond, lime and vanilla flavors. All versions are 40 percent alcohol, just as strong as any other.

"My favorite is lime," said Khalanskaya.

The vodka is being marketed in Yekaterinburg, Moscow and St. Petersburg, but is also sold in other cities, such as Tula, 190 kilometers south of Moscow.

"I was with my father at a shop in Tula and we decided not to buy it for the family party," said a professionally dressed young Russian man in fluent English as he shopped in the vodka aisle of a central Moscow shop. "Women must take care of themselves. It is their job to keep the home fires burning and to have babies," he said.

The marketers, however, disagree.

"The Marilyn Monroe motif is pretty and feminine. The vodka is mass market. It is for the usual Russian woman who prefers vodka to white wine or champagne or other drinks," Khalanskaya said.

Deiros is especially focused on increasing sales ahead of the upcoming International Women's Day celebrations on March 8.

"That's our holiday," said Khalanskaya.

"Sales are going rather well. But we will see what the results are at the end of spring and we'll make an efficiency analysis," she said.

When marketed to women, it seems, vodka goes from being part of the Russian soul to becoming part of the bottom line.