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One of the best examples of WOM marketing comes not from this century or the last century, but from the 19th century. And, it happened in neither the United States nor Western Europe, but in Russia. As retold in Linda Himelstein’s fascinating The King of Vodka, Pyotr Smirnov, father of the now-worldwide Smirnoff vodka brand (rebranded using the more popular French spelling), faced the imposing challenge of making his product stand out among the competition. At the time, Moscow had hundreds of distillers, and vodka was available at almost all taverns. Each tavern had its favorite distiller, and customers were used to drinking whatever brand they were served. Although Smirnov was convinced that his revolutionary charcoal-filtered vodka was a superior product, he realized that he was going to have a hard time convincing people of that himself, tavern by tavern.
To address this challenge, in 1872 Smirnov crafted a highly unorthodox marketing strategy. His efforts began in the Khitrov market, a grimy section of Moscow frequented by those newly arrived from the countryside who were looking for work. It was a busy part of the city, with as many as 10,000 people a day moving through it and all of its pubs. Smirnov went there to recruit a group of men who would become his representatives.
Smirnov took his small band of recruits back to his house, where he fed them and gave them vodka to drink. The group was a collection of men from a broad range of neighborhoods in and around Moscow. Smirnov informed them he would pay them to eat and drink vodka, on one condition –they demand Smirnov vodka everywhere they went. If Smirnov vodka were not available – which at the time was true more often than not – they were to complain loudly and refuse any other brand of vodka that was offered. When the manager came over, they were to ask him “How is it possible that your respected establishment does not have such a vodka? It is absolutely the most remarkable vodka there is!” They would then leave the pub in a huff and start the performance all over again in the next tavern.
As the story goes, Smirnov began getting inquiries from tavern managers the very first day. Smirnov kept it up, having his word-of-mouth crew fan out all over the city until they had visited every drinking establishment in Moscow. Once Smirnov had saturated the city limits, he sent his representatives on the rail lines, stopping at every station along the way. It was said that news of Smirnov’s vodka “traveled like a virus,” spreading his vodka throughout Russia. Smirnov’s campaign was undoubtedly one of the earliest examples of “viral marketing.”
Smirnov did not limit his marketing efforts to his WOM methods. He was, by most accounts, a marketing genius. Indeed, he was an early practitioner/advocate of newspaper advertising, charitable donations in the company’s name, and award gathering for prestige – all tried and true tools of today’s marketers.