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New vodka on the block

Kishore Singh | June 11, 2005

Amrit Kiran Singh wears two masks and flits effortlessly between the two. In the one, he is chairman of AmCham India, the American Chamber of Commerce in India, traditionally the low-profile policy-bashing forum for American CEOs making little or poor headway in the country.

But that's set to change, says Singh, who's been an active AmCham member for several years, and on its executive committee for the most part.

As Brown-Forman's area director, Singh has his task cut out for him. AmCham's Indian members are likely to have been students at American colleges and universities, or at the least worked there for a while.

As a result, they are probably familiar with Brown-Forman's principal product, Jack Daniels, the single malt that is the highest selling brand in its category (of ultra premium whiskies) in the world.

But Indians exposed more to scotch than malt, need to be convinced to change, and this is where Singh's other (professional) mask comes into play.

But there's more on Amrit Kiran Singh's plate now than ever before. In one role, he hopes to reinvent the Chamber and give it a higher profile, for which he's planning, among other things, a series of debates on national (chiefly fiscal) issues.

To this end, he will invite relevant ministers in the government, senior bureaucrats and media hands to battle over the infrastructure speedbreakers and, in an attempt to broadbase the debates and seek solutions, is looking for relevant partnerships for airing them on business news channels.

On the other hand, Brown-Forman has provided him another platform for selling its products in the region. For years, the Finnish government vodka company Finlandia has come up tops in blind tastings in East Europe.

Recognising an opportunity, Brown-Forman took over its distribution in the US till, last year, it bought an 80 per cent stake in the company. It is now Singh's business to grow the brand in India, where it has been introduced in its classic as well as its flavoured (mango, cranberry, lime) options ($13 in duty-free shops; Rs 1,500-1,600 in retail for 1 litre).

Currently, vodka constitutes 7 million cases of the 85 million cases of spirits sold in the market, and most of this market has been established by Smirnoff through extensive advertising.

While Smirnoff's market grew, cheaper vodkas grew faster because vodka was perceived as a drink had in cocktails with juices, where any vodka would do.

But now that a discerning clientele has started demanding vodka on the rocks, imported vodkas Absolut, Belvedere and now Finlandia are pushing for a firm toehold in the market.

And so, when Singh isn't pushing AmCham India, he'll be looking at increasing sales for Finlandia.

Part of that involves tastings and freebies in bars and pubs, with Finlandia rolling out in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and Goa.

Finlandia's USP is the use of pure glacial spring water and a particular six-row barley that ripens in Finland's "midnight sun". Singh says that at its price point, Finlandia is value for money, "a good vodka at a really good price".

And terming all other 'designer vodkas' (read Belvedere) pretenders -- 'conceived by marketing people' -- he says that as a true luxury vodka, Finlandia retails "well below so-called designer vodkas in the Rs 2,000-plus category."

Now that the first salvo's been fired, perhaps he can take the debate to AmCham India. May the best vodka win.


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