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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patriotism Selling Like Hot Cakes in 'Nashe' Country

Just a few years ago, Mikhail Kozarev and his friends plied their dates with amaretto, the latest novelty liqueur from the West. They snacked on Snickers and frequented video cafes that played Sylvester Stallone movies. If it was imported, it was hip.

Today, Kozarev is general manager of a popular radio network that plays nothing but homegrown rock. Ersatz Spice Girls and would-be Madonnas are banned. And he hasn't seen anyone order amaretto in a long while.

"It was very uncool to be Russian in the beginning of the '90s," Kozarev said. "Every newspaper and television show was obsessed with showing how bad this country is and how hopeless we are and how good life is in the West. Now it's cool to be Russian again."

Indeed, from the all-Russian rock on Kozarev's radio stations to the "made in Russia" labels showing up in supermarkets, consumer nationalism has risen with political nationalism under President Vladimir Putin. Western companies that once found it easy to sell anything with English on the package now take pains to obscure their ownership of Russian brands.

If a product isn't nashe — "ours" — it's simply harder to sell. In advertising, as in politics, plays on patriotism are in. Russian bears sell beer and kerchiefed babushkas star in cutting-edge music videos. The trademark onion domes of Russian churches decorate labels for chocolate bars and dumplings.

Far from being an oxymoron, Russian Style is a cigarette brand made by a Western tobacco firm just for the Russian market.

There's even a name for this process: "Russification." At a time when globalization means more of the same around the world, Russia is defying the trend by turning inward again.

"I try to avoid foreign products," said 45-year-old teacher Tamara Filatova over an after-school snack of homemade wine and cake.

Her colleague Yelena Pavlovskaya grimaced when offered a Pepsi, as fellow teacher Svetlana Yevlash threw in: "Our products are better than foreign ones."

Marketing surveys confirm how dramatic the turnabout has been for a country that once embraced all things Western as the antidote to 70 years of communist deprivation. Before 1998, according to the firm Comcon, only 48 percent of Russians said they preferred to buy domestic goods when considering quality and not just price. By 1999, that figure was 90 percent. It's a striking change accelerated by the 1998 ruble devaluation that made many imported goods inaccessibly expensive for Russians.

Economists say Western firms lost as much as two-thirds of their market share after the crash — and have yet to fully recover even as the economy has bounced back.

"Domestically produced goods have knocked international brands out of the top slot virtually across the board," the magazine Euromoney recently proclaimed.

While price has a lot to do with the Russian rout — 85 percent of Russians cannot afford imported luxuries as average salaries hover around $80 a month — the change suggests something deeper. In a place where consumer choice is still a novelty, where a decade ago a hunk of generic cheese indifferently wrapped in plain brown paper marked a successful day of shopping, the change suggests just how uneasy Russia still is about its own evolving brand of capitalism and the West that exported it. These days, ads are aimed at salving the wounded pride of an ex-superpower struggling to reassert itself.

And they are pitched to "regional, low-income citizens who believe the U.S. should not be ahead of Russia," said Marina Malikhina, head of a marketing research firm.

British American Tobacco was perhaps the first to capitalize on this idea. When it launched its Yava Gold cigarettes just before the 1998 crisis, the ads were a prototype for the new patriotism — semi-humorously, semi-seriously showing a Russian bear in a "retaliatory strike" on the Empire State Building. Like the nationalistic ads that followed, it was patriotic revenge on the triumphant post-Cold War West. The fact that it's those same Western capitalists who are often reaping the profits is usually left unsaid.

"The most successful products today are local ones created by Western companies and promoted using Western techniques but aimed at Russian patriotism," said Alexander Gromov, managing director of the Moscow office of the international ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. "They are talking to Russians speaking their language — but using all the tricks of Western marketing."

When U.S. confectionary giant Mars started a new candy bar here recently, it named it Derzhava — a politically loaded word that translates literally as "power" and is the unofficial slogan of Russia's strong-state crowd. The Derzhava television ad campaign appeals directly to Russians who believe they have been left behind by capitalism: A husband, his wife and her mother sit at their modest country dacha watching in disgust as their nouveau-riche neighbors haul in tacky statues to adorn their glitzy new palace. As the husband bites into his chocolate, he reassures the tea-drinking mother and daughter: "Forget about money; taste is everything."

But it's a homegrown company — Wimm-Bill-Dann — that offers perhaps the most widely recognized example of how firms have accommodated themselves to the shift in post-Soviet consumer culture.

Back in the early 1990s, fledgling Wimm-Bill-Dann created a bestselling juice brand with the cryptic and, to a Russian ear, completely Western-sounding name J7. Under the new mood, Wimm-Bill-Dann, now the country's largest dairy and juice company, chooses only Russian names for its products.

Eager to compete with Wimm-Bill-Dann, the international dairy firm Danone has invested millions in local plants and embraced the buy-Russian hook, even marketing its own brand of "Classic Russian" kefir, a sour yogurtlike drink that is a Russian staple. "Made in Russia" may be stamped prominently on the bottle, but Danone's kefir costs more than its competitors and doesn't taste classic enough for the purists.

"The 'Made in Russia' label is an affirmation we belong here," said Danone's local marketing director, Mark Putt. But he acknowledged, sitting in his office at the famous Soviet-era Bolshevik cookie factory, "Danone will never be leaders in kefir. It's a very traditional Russian thing."

On the other side of Moscow from the Bolshevik factory, the cash-strapped teachers of School No. 1280 agree that buying Russian is a state of mind and not simply a matter of price.

As much as anything, it's about identity — a realization that while they may now be free to choose Coca-Cola and McDonald's, they really prefer the strong black tea and omnipresent sausages of their Soviet past — they're nashe.

Like the others, Filatova recalled her first infatuation with Western goods, going to the supermarket "like it was a museum." But she laughed about her one and only time trying a Snickers ("too sweet") and drew the line at just about anything foreign for her home, even resisting her friends' pleas to try a German-made toothpaste.

Later, on a trip to the market, she put only one imported product in her modest basket — a $1.45 can of cat food. And that only because there's no domestic alternative her cat will eat.

To Kozarev and his friends at their all-Russian rock network, that's the point. With financial backing from controversial local tycoon Boris Berezovsky and international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, they tested three formats: Two emphasized Western music, one was homegrown. It won.

"It turned out that we have been overfed with Western culture, and not of the best quality," Kozarev said.

"There was a strong reaction against it." They chose a simple name for their stations: Nashe.