Was the Moscow Mule the First Viral Marketing Success Story?

It was years before Ray Tomlinson hit ‘send’ on history’s first email, and decades ahead of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web dreams. Hell, the Numa Numa video was but a glinting beacon on the horizon, more than half a century into the future. Technologically speaking, times were lean. But an ingenious executive named John Martin looked at the modest advances of his day and envisioned opportunity where others saw only novelty.

An inventor had just created the world’s first instant camera, which, through the magic of self-developing film, could create a print in less than a minute after the shutter clicked (no shaking necessary, despite what you heard from Outkast). The new invention was undoubtedly the hit of many a party, but Martin foresaw a way to take it a step further, to use the social element of the new gizmo as a potent solution to a business problem he’d been struggling with for nearly a decade.

Eight years earlier, in 1939, as the president of Heublein, Inc., a small Connecticut-based food and beverage company, Martin had acquired the rights to Smirnoff vodka. Problem was, Americans hadn’t yet acquired a taste for vodka, and Smirnoff, which had just arrived on these shores, had yet to find a foothold in the marketplace.

By 1941, he was ready to stick a cork in his vodka venture: Apart from a slight spike in South Carolina, where an enterprising distributor was marketing the stuff as “White Whiskey,” Smirnoff sales were stagnant. Later that year, during one of his regular trips to Los Angeles to visit the actress Jane Weeks—his future wife—Martin got hit by the serendipity stick.

Stopping off at the Cock’n Bull, a legendary Hollywood nightspot owned by his pal Jack Morgan, Martin listened to Morgan lament the surplus of ginger beer he had on his hands. No sooner had the words ‘what a coincidence’ left Martin’s lips than Morgan’s girlfriend, Ozeline Schmidt—“a great big, beautiful, buxom woman,” as Martin remembers her—walked into the bar.

It just so happened that Schmidt had recently inherited her family’s copper mine and couldn’t find any buyers for their products, which included the cold-conducting copper mugs that would soon give the Moscow Mule its signature look. While the colorful denizens of the Cock’n Bull (a group that included, at various times in the fabled joint’s history, Somerset Maugham, Richard Burton, and Rod Stewart) caroused around them, Martin, Morgan, and Schmidt sought the perfect balance of spicy ginger, smooth vodka, and citrusy lime.

They eventually found their formula, of course, but that was just the beginning for the Moscow Mule. The cocktail wouldn’t hit full gallop among the drinking public until Martin became an early adopter of the instant camera, taking the device on the road to spread Moscow Mule fever.

The Heublein exec visited watering holes and photographed bartenders with a Moscow Mule copper mug in one hand and a bottle of Smirnoff in the other. He would snap two photos, leaving one with the bartender and taking the other to his next destination, where he would say, in effect, “Check out what the competition is doing. You don’t want to be left behind, do you?”

Indeed, no bartender—or, for that matter, drinker—did want to be left behind. The photos—attention-grabbing novelties in and of themselves—would be circulated, along with feverish word-of-mouth about the refreshing tasting new cocktail and its eye-catching vessel.

As a result, the Moscow Mule spread like, yes, a virus—and sales of Smirnoff tripled by the end of the decade. Several other Smirnoff-promoted vodka cocktails became popular in the Mule’s wake, including the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the Bullshot (vodka and bullion), and the Ice Pick (vodka and iced tea).

As Robert Furek, Martin’s successor at Heublein (which would become the Smirnoff Co.), told The New York Times, “John Martin started new selling techniques. He didn’t go by the book.” With his instant-camera-powered campaign, Martin not only started a cocktail craze and singlehandedly popularized vodka in the U.S., he also created a marketing technique that was more than half a century ahead of its time.

“He just did it,” said Furek. “And it was fun to him.”

Following Martin’s death in 1986, Heublein created a research center in his honor, dedicating the new facility to the man “who believed in products and ideas when few others did.” Or, to put it in today’s terms, Martin totally would have taken to Snapchat like a duck to water.

SMIRNOFF No. 21 Vodka. Distilled From Grain. 40% Alc/Vol. The Smirnoff Co., Norwalk, CT.

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