Willis' deal gives vodka brand a taste of the action

Bruce Willis has a reason he wants moviegoers to watch him down shots of Sobieski: He owns part of the premium Polish vodka brand.

Through a lucrative marketing deal with Sobieski’s French parent Belvedere, Willis has served as the brand’s global spokes-celebrity since December, with his latest marketing move involving making sure bottles of the brand appear in Summit Entertainment’s actioner “Red,” which bows this weekend.

The promo pact, which lasts for at least the next four years, gives Willis a 3.3% stake in Belvedere, behind Danish vodka Danzka, France’s top whiskey William Peel and other spirits like Manzanita, Triple Sec and wine labels Roquatelle, Bacalis and Sophia.

In return, the arrangement guarantees that Sobieski, at least, is promoted across all forms of media with Willis as its leading man.

After Diageo handed over half of Ciroc vodka to Sean “Diddy” Combs, in return for his promotional support in 2007, a number of brand reps also considered going into business with celebrities as a way to rise above their rivals when it comes to exposure — especially in the U.S. where most thesps don’t agree to lend their likenesses in ad campaigns. The spirits biz has especially become fiercely competitive over the last several years.

Talent like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith typically agree to appear in promo efforts but decline to have those ads run Stateside where they feel the spots may tarnish their image with moviegoers, or the products just aren’t sold here.

The same was true with Willis at first, with an initial agreement only covering Europe and not North America. As of last year, the relationship now covers the rest of the world.

After Belvedere S.A. launched Sobieski (named after Polish monarchs) in 2007, the company zeroed in on Willis as its first celebrity endorsement deal.

“We just had a feeling that the way Bruce portrays himself as a no-nonsense, straight-forward, black-and-white sorta guy fit well with the personality of the brand,” said Chester Brandes, president and CEO of Imperial Brands, the U.S. subsidiary of Belvédère S.A. The exec has previously helped launch Stoli, Finlandia and Absolut vodka brands in the U.S.

Whereas most thesps receive a hefty upfront paycheck for their marketing duties, Belvedere offered up ownership in the company in exchange for Willis’ services.

The deal guaranteed that Sobieski would appear in Willis’ future films, especially the ones he produces. That includes “Red,” in which Sobieski not only stands out in a scene in the film, where Willis’ character downs a shot of the drink to recoup from injuries, it was also the exclusive sponsor of the red carpet for the film’s Monday premiere outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater and lavish afterparty.

“This is the first of hopefully many movies with Bruce,” Brandes said, with the next likely pic to be “Kane & Lynch,” the videogame-based actioner that Willis is producing and will star in opposite Jamie Foxx.

“It’s got to be the right kind of product placement. We don’t want it to appear in a bar fight,” he said.

Willis is also the front man in a series of print ads that have appeared in pubs like Playboy, US Weekly and Rolling Stone. He attends special events for the company to promote the brand with restaurant and bar owners, and local tastemakers in various cities.

The promo pact with Sobieski has also made Willis the star of a series of shorts on Sobieski’s website that feature him tossing out over-the-top ideas on how to promote the vodka.

“He doesn’t fake it,” Brandes said. “He believes in the product.”

Of course, Willis has a reason to do so: Earning a piece of the profits is always a good incentive to push a brand.

That kind of arrangement is what also encouraged Combs to offer up his support behind Ciroc, a deal that could eventually be worth more than $100 million to the rapper-entrepreneur.

The beer, wine and liquor industry in the U.S. is said to generate about $35 billion in sales each year.

“I am very selective about what products I choose to associate myself with,” Willis said in a statement. “Sobieski vodka impressed me because of its quality, authenticity and affordability.”

Willis’ face time has so far been paying off for Sobieski.

While sales more than doubled last year, with more than half a million cases sold, Imperial Brands sold more Sobieski over the last two months than it ever has.

“Since Bruce started, we’ve seen a huge impact in sales,” Brandes said.

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