A Look at Absolut Vodka’s Fascinating College Recruitment Program

September 14, 2015

You can recruit college students in a variety of ways.

You can go the traditional route via college career fairs. You can have a compelling Instagram page. Or, you can challenge them to submit two-minute long YouTube videos explaining why you should hire them, which look something like this:

That’s exactly what Absolut Vodka is doing with its 18-month program, Absolut Graduate, which is in its second year. The concept is to get “brand ambassadors” to go to major cities – Amsterdam, Paris, Toronto, etc. – and act as “boots on the ground” marketers for the Swedish-based liquor company, said Absolut's Broadcast Director Bjorn von Matern.

The company is looking for people who can represent the brand well at events like art shows and club openings. But they are looking for creative thinkers as well - people who can try creative new marketing techniques on the fly and find out what works, according to Absolut's HR Business Partner Linda Lundkvist.

The hope is that after the 18-month program is up, the ambassadors have a sense of what marketing strategies resonate with the public, which they can use to help inform the company’s overall strategy. And while a job isn’t guaranteed at Absolut once the 18-month program ends, the hope is that each ambassador not only gets hired at the Swedish company, but also thrives there.

“We are hoping to find our next CEO with this program,” said Lundkvist, only half-jokingly.

“Exactly,” von Matern said, again only half-joking. “We are being very nice to the people in the program, because there’s a chance they might be our boss.”

The idea

Absolut Vodka is owned by conglomerate Pernod Ricard. Another brand in Ricard’s portfolio is Jameson Whiskey, which has been doing its own graduate program for years:

jameson-whiskey-ambassador-program

Through this program, Jameson has been able to consistently get enthusiastic recent graduates to represent their brand in some of the world’s biggest cities. Those people have been given freedom to experiment with new marketing techniques on a local scale, the results of which Jameson has used to inform its global marketing efforts.

Encouraged by its sister company’s success, Absolut decided to borrow the idea and started the Absolut Graduate program last year, von Matern said. In 2014, the company sifted through 160 applicants and hired four “brand ambassadors” in four cities – Amsterdam, Paris, Stockholm and Toronto – through the program.

In 2015, Absolut is running the program again, with the intention of hiring another three to five ambassadors, according to von Matern.

absolut-graduate-program-2015

Once hired, brand ambassadors go to events in their city, such as fashion shows and grand openings, and spread the word of Absolut. Additionally, they have the freedom to try some of their own ideas, von Matern said.

How Absolut recruits for Absolut Graduate

One of the most fascinating parts of Absolut Graduate is how Absolut recruits for it. Lundkvist and von Matern spread the word through traditional means – career fairs, LinkedIn posts, advertisements in local newspapers. But, they asked for a unique type of application.

Instead of a traditional resume and cover letter, graduates were asked to submit a two-minute YouTube video explaining why they are right for Absolut Graduate. Here are two of the more compelling submissions:

1. Pomeline Rosén's application:

2. Robin Thyselius's application:

The first year, Lundkvist and von Matern received 160 submissions. The second year they had to limit applicants to Sweden citizens because of legal reasons, and received 100 submissions.

“The films were so much better than I expected,” von Matern said. “I was really surprised by the creativity.”

What Absolut is looking for in candidates

Once all the videos come in, Lundkvist and von Matern screen them all to find the best 15 or so. They then invite the creators to a group interview at Absolut’s headquarters.

“We wanted someone who was energetic, who was passionate and who was creative,” von Matern said, describing what the company was looking for in the videos. “After all, they are going to be in a new city representing Absolut at all of these events, so we needed people who were friendly and outgoing, but also creative enough to come up with new ideas.”

During the group interview at Absolut headquarters, von Matern and Lundkvist look to see if the application video accurately reflects the candidates’ personalities. To further test the applicants, they have them make a drink on the spot to see how they could handle impromptu situations.

“It wasn’t about who made the best drink,” Lundkvist said. “It was about how they handled themselves.”

From there, Lundkvist and von Matern select the best seven candidates. Those seven names are then passed along to the location managers in the cities the ambassadors will serve. They interview the candidates and select the one that best fits their needs.

Once hired, candidates go through a three-week training process where they learn how Absolut Vodka is made, what makes it different from other vodkas and the ethics of the organization, von Matern said. After that, they are sent to their location for their assignment.

Life as an Absolut Graduate

Once training is done, the Absolut Graduates spend 18 months at whatever city they’ve been assigned to. There, they work with the cities’ location manager as boots-on-the-ground marketers for the company.

What does that mean, specifically? Well, first off, they go to a variety of events such as art shows and club openings to represent Absolut Vodka. That entails them passing out free samples, telling the Absolut story and hearing how the general public feels about the brand.

Additionally, they are given license to try their own ideas on how to market Absolut in their cities. Generally, people will focus on their interests, with one ambassador doing a lot with social media and another focusing on guerilla marketing techniques, Lundkvist said.

“Their goal is to raise awareness of Absolut in their city, and we want to give them the freedom to be able to do that in the ways they think are going to be most effective,” von Matern said. “The advantage here is they get the results in real time, so they quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.”

Florian Charpentier, who was brought on through the program as the Absolut Brand Ambassador in Paris, agreed, saying he was given plenty of opportunity in his role.

“Dare to dream and create, make it feasible and relevant, and do it,” he said. “Absolut will support you.”

Once the 18 months are up, the goal is to hire the ambassadors full-time at Absolut, with the hope that their new ideas can help shape the company’s overall marketing efforts. So far, that’s been the case, as Pernod Ricard’s properties have seen 80 percent of ambassadors in similar programs get hired to full-time roles after their 18-month tour ends.

What other companies can learn from this program

There are a lot of lessons companies can adopt from the Absolut Graduate program.

On the recruiting side, it’s a unique way to get college students buzzing about the company. Instead of the traditional way of recruiting, these videos bring an energy to Absolut’s college recruiting efforts that most processes lack, while also providing a unique and effective way for screening candidates.

On the business side, the program is a great way to get strong ambassadors representing Absolut in cities throughout the world. Additionally, it gives these people the freedom to test new ideas in real-time, the results of which Absolut can use to inform their overall marketing efforts.

Bottom line, Absolut, like most companies selling consumer products, has to continue to innovate to stay relevant in the marketplace. This program is the perfect way to make that happen, where small-scale tests by creative people can inform full-scale strategies.

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