I’ll Drink to That … 4,000,000 Times

The makers of Absolut Vodka went to their manufacturing plant a while back and asked their coatings people to do something strange: paint the next 4,000,000 bottles off the assembly line without having the same finish twice.


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If you are a paint line manager with a stomach that gets queasy very easily, you may not want to read any further.

If you’re any type of finishing manager, for that matter, what you are about to read may not be good for your health, but here goes:

The makers of Absolut Vodka went to their manufacturing plant a while back and asked their coatings people to do something strange for them, which was to paint the next 4,000,000 bottles off the assembly line without having the same finish twice.

That’s right. Forget about the creed of all finishing line managers: lather, rinse, repeat.

The Absolut heathens wanted 4,000,000 distinctly different bottles coming off their assembly line with a different paint scheme on each one. It was dreamed up by the people in Absolut’s marketing department (isn’t that where all dreams come from?), and they thought it would be easy to pull off.

Sure, take finely-tuned pieces of painting apparatus, ones that have been synchronized to within a goat hair of hitting the same mark every time and delivering the exact amount of color on the same marks with precision, and then pour a glass of milk all over the circuit boards and see what you get.

“Meet your new painting line manager, his name is Jackson Pollock.”

The marketing people were calling the products Absolut Unique, meaning no two bottles would ever look exactly alike, just like snowflakes.

After presenting the concept to the production managers and finishing line personnel, the company then met with some mathematicians to calculate exactly if this could be done with certainty.

It was decided that 38 colors would be used on the paint lines, but then they had to set out to reprogram the machinery to make sure it wouldn’t make the same pattern twice using the more than three dozen colors Absolute had at its disposal.

The mathematicians and equipment engineers huddled in a back room (where I’m sure they sampled a lot of the Absolut product, just to make sure they were tuned in to the merchandise), and then they started spewing calculations.

Using algorithms, slide rules and probably a trusted TI-84 graphing calculator, they determined that they could set up the 38 colors to spray at least 51 different ways each without risking a noticeable duplication pattern.

The result meant that they could paint 94 quintillion different vodka bottles without getting the exact same color and pattern twice. That’s 30 zeroes after 94, or 1030 if you’re scoring at home.

Or put this way: They could give 13 billion bottles of Absolut to every man, woman and child on the planet today and never have two alike.

This is nothing new for Absolut, who we will admit has one of the most creative marketing departments on planet Earth. Back in the 1980s, they hired Andy Warhol and a few other well-known artists to design their bottles as part of an advertising campaign.

The result increased Absolut’s sales by merely 15,000 percent. Cha-ching!

“The bottle’s the hero,” says Richard Lewis, the advertising executive with TBWA/Chiat Day who designed more than 500 unique ads with different Absolut bottles that ran in magazines over a 15-year period.

We’ll take that even further: The paint scheme was the true hero of Absolut’s most recent promotion. The color, the finish, the eye-popping look and feel of the bottles was the real story. Take all that away and you have a frosted glass bottle. Turn on the paint machines, and you have art.

We shouldn’t forget that message in the industrial finishing industry. The paint, powder and plating may go on last, but they are the first thing consumers see when they look at a product.

Those of you in the industry who have customers that don’t appreciate the craftsmanship and brilliance of a great finish should tell them this story about Absolut. Leave it to a vodka company to appreciate more than anyone that the package is often as impressive as what is underneath.

Finishing is what makes a product stand out—and not rust away—in the eyes of a consumer, and we ought not to let manufacturers forget it. I’ll drink to that!

To watch a video on the Absolut vodka paint project, see below: