Battle lines have been drawn in a Russian vodka war in the UK, sparked by the arrival of Russian Standard which is challenging Smirnoff's crown.
The warning signs came in early June when Southampton-based First Drinks Brands announced it was adding a three-strong Russian vodka range to its portfolio. Made from wheat grown in the Russian Steppes and distilled four times in St Petersburg , Russian Standard immediately positioned itself as a brand steeped in Russian heritage.
And it wasn't about to enter the UK market quietly. By courageously declaring itself "a serious contender" in the vodka category, Russian Standard threw down the gauntlet to Diageo's Smirnoff and Pernod Ricard's Stolichnaya.
Created by Russian billionaire Roustam Tariko, who owns Russia's biggest credit card firm, Russian Standard is Russia's number one premium vodka with a 60 per cent share of the premium market. It is available in 40 markets worldwide including the US and Asia, and from September will flex its muscles in the UK.
Tariko claims the selling point for Russian Standard against the mighty Smirnoff is it is an authentic Russian vodka. Russian Standard might have sold a mere 1.4 million cases globally last year compared with Smirnoff's impressive 26 million, but Tariko is convinced consumers will favour a brand distilled and bottled in Russia.
In press reports Tariko has been keen to p lay on the fact that Smirnoff is made in a number of countries, including the US and Scotland, and that Pernod Ricard's Stolichnaya might market itself as Russian because it is distilled in Kaliningrad, but it is bottled in Latvia. In it s homeland, Russian Standard's latest ad campaign draw s a line between brands that are truly authentic, and those that simply claim to be.
In the UK a TV ad campaign will focus on the brand's Russian heritage, but will leave it to consumers to decide whether other brands can make the same claims, says First Drinks Brands managing director Chris Mason.
"We wanted to bring the authenticity back into Russian vodka. Russian Standard is truly produced in Russia, it's bottled at source and shipped all over the world . It's an important point of difference," he says.
The fact that Russian Standard is made by combining Russian grain and water, and is distilled and bottled at source, makes it a genuine Russian vodka, Mason adds. "We think our brand ticks all the boxes . We're not sure the other two brands do," he says.
But Mason is quick to avoid confrontation with Russian Standard's UK rivals: "It's interesting that their emphasis is on heritage and provenance - it makes us think we're on the right track here. We wouldn't be arrogant enough to come in as a new brand and knock Smirnoff and Stolichnaya. People have to make up their own minds."
Last year in the US Tariko filed a lawsuit against Pernod Ricard, accusing the company of "false advertising" for Stolichnaya and it has not yet been resolved.
A spokesman at the Stolichnaya Brand Organisation said: " We recognise that authenticity is a key driver of choice for premium vodka drinkers , and Stolichnaya epitomises authenticity in Russian vodka. Stolichnaya is irrefutably 100 per cent Russian as it is made 100 per cent in Russia in the Black Earth region 500km south east of Moscow."
To emphasise the brand's Russian credentials, Pernod Ricard's latest global ad campaign is designed to establish Stolichnaya as a Russian icon.
Howard Southern, vice president of marketing , adds: "The development of the Choose Authenticity campaign was driven by research which concluded that authenticity is an extremely important consideration in the purchasing decisions of today's young adult consumers."
But why are consumers so caught up with where a brand has come from? In the past five years the UK consumer has become increasingly cynical about marketing campaigns, according to Russian Standard's marketing director Katie Rawll.
She says: "People are questioning whether it is produced where they're lead to believe it is being produced, or is it a marketing ploy? There's lots of different messages out there - is that marketing hype or is that really the case?"
Rawll adds that the trend for spending more on a product with genuine provenance is not unique to the vodka category. It can be also be seen in the growing popularity of Fairtrade and organic food and people's increased awareness of where the food originated, she says.
Russian heritage and the product story has always figured heavily in Diageo's advertising, with past campaigns including a Win the Life of a Czar on-pack promotion. This July Diageo is bringing its recently-launched global ad campaign to the UK. Called Signature, it maps the brand's journey from Russia across America and into Europe.
For marketing manager Chris Lock, the fact that Smirnoff is made in a number of different countries does not have any bearings on its claims as a Russian vodka: "Many vodkas are distilled in countries other than Russia or Poland," he says.
But is Lock worried that Smirnoff could be elbowed out of its position as the best-selling vodka brand in the UK?
"The introduction of brands such as this is increasing the interest and investment in the category," he says. "It would be arrogant to see it as not being a challenge or to ignore it. We're very happy with our marketing plans for the year to come and we're keeping a close eye on what happens."
As rival brands fight for dominance in a booming premium vodka market worth almost £1.9 billion in annual UK sales, the stakes are high and the showdown is just beginning.
Let battle commence - how the three rivals shape up on marketing
Who is it aimed at? "Aspirational" men and women aged 18-34
Marketing message? An authentically Russian vodka in origin and character
Cost? An undisclosed sum. "It's in the millions," according to managing director Chris Mason
Where will you see it? Pre-Christmas TV ads, consumer promotions, PR activity
Marketing message? Recreates images from poster ads and propaganda used during the Russian revolution to emphasise the brand's heritage
Strapline? Choose Authenticity
Cost? €47 million globally
Where will you see it? 150 UK cinemas, online ads, in-store promotions, PR activity
Marketing message? 150-year-old brand that originated in Imperial Russia and then journeyed across Europe to America
Cost? £500,000 media spend focusing on London and Scotland
Where will you see it? TV ads, online at smirnoff.com