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Marketing Giant Michel Roux Passes Away At 78

May 2, 2019

Michel Roux, who built Absolut Vodka into an icon of the spirits business, has passed away at age 78.

A native of France, Roux immigrated to the United States in 1964, and started his career in the hospitality industry with management and ownership of nightclubs and restaurants in Texas. He joined Carillon Importers in 1970, and in 1981 became its president and CEO.

Carillon had an obscure Swedish vodka brand in its portfolio called Absolut, which had entered the company in 1979. At the time, the U.S. imported vodka market was led by Stolichnaya and Finlandia, and Absolut was barely a blip on the radar screen. Its volume in 1980 was 45,000 cases.

Roux conducted a revamp of Absolut’s packaging, and enlisted the services of ad agency TBWA Worldwide. Together, Roux and TBWA began commissioning artists—starting with Andy Warhol—to create a bottle-based, art-centric advertising campaign. The partners created what became the most successful spirits ad campaign in history, portraying the Absolut bottle in innumerable executions.

The Absolut campaign ran successfully for 25 years. During that time, nearly 2,000 artists were commissioned to create their expressions of Absolut’s bottle. The Absolut bottle became an icon of its age and cutting-edge cultural symbol—at a time when the rest of the U.S. spirits market was mired in a generational downturn.

Carillon lost the rights to Absolut in 1994 after Absolut’s parent company, Swedish alcohol monopoly V&S, entered a global distribution accord with Seagram. By then, Absolut’s U.S. volume had reached nearly 3 million cases. Today Absolut, which is owned by Pernod Ricard, is a global powerhouse, with worldwide volume of 11.25 million cases.

Roux’s other big success at Carillon was Bombay Sapphire—an upscale, stylish offshoot of the Bombay gin brand that was entirely his own creation. He fashioned the brand’s unusually stylish blue bottle, and launched it as an on-premise only brand in the early 1980s. Sapphire rose to become the star of the upscale gin category. For many years, it was among the only gin brands in the U.S. to show torrid growth. Bombay (and Bombay Sapphire) were sold to Bacardi in 1998. Sapphire remains the leader of U.S. market’s upscale gin segment today, with U.S. volume of around 1 million cases.

A victim of his own success with the loss of Absolut and Bombay Sapphire to other companies, Roux quit Carillon in 1998 and launched his own operation, Crillon Importers, whose portfolio started with a number of high-end imports including Absente liqueur, Agavero Tequila liqueur, and Barbancourt rum. While never replicating the success of Carillon, Roux’s new company prospered, and he remained a widely respected figure in the U.S. drinks business.

“Michel had many friendships across the industry,” said Marvin R. Shanken, chairman of M. Shanken Communications. “He was admired for his brilliant, individualistic style of marketing.”—David Fleming

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