It’s (im)material: Packaging, Social Media and Iconic Brands in the New Russia

Graham H. Roberts, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense,

The aim of this contribution is to contribute to the growing literature on material culture and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe.  In particular, I should like to take up the central themes of two articles published recently on Material World by Makarenko and Borgerson (2009) and Glass (2012). I wish to build on these studies in two ways, however.  First, I intend to look at alcohol, at how certain post-Soviet Russian alcohol brands use packaging to appeal to consumers’ patriotism.  Second, I wish to draw parallels between the material culture of packaging on the one hand, and the immaterial culture of social media networks on the other.
It could be argued, of course, that packaging is not ‘material culture’ in the usual sense of the word.  In some sense it is a hybrid phenomenon, neither immaterial (like the brand), nor material (like the product: see Manning 2010). Torn between the ‘semiotic’ world of brand and the ‘functional’ world of the product (Manning, private comment), it is the crucial ‘commercial interface’ between brand and consumer (Heilbrunn and Barré 2012, 10).
On the contrary, we would maintain that packaging is indeed part of material culture in the sense described by Woodward: ‘In its popular scholarly usage, the term “material culture” is generally taken to refer to any material object (e.g. shoes, cup, pen) or network of material objects (e.g. house, car, shopping mall) that people perceive, touch, use, handle, carry out social activities within, use or contemplate’ (2007: 14).  Packages are indeed objects, since they are handled, and – especially in the cases which I shall be looking at – they are aesthetic objects designed to be contemplated (see for example Borgerson and Schroeder 2008).
Packaging in Russia has almost always been ideologically and politically loaded.  In her excellent book on Russian retailing from 1880 to 1930, Marjorie Hilton (2012) mentions the fact that in the late Imperial era, many Russian companies displayed the Romanov eagle on their labels. Later, in the 1920s, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed sweet wrappers around such themes as industrialisation or the Red Army. The politicisation of chocolate wrappers continued throughout the Soviet era with, for example, the ‘New Moscow’ range of the 1960s (examples of Soviet and post-Soviet packaging design can be found here:  The product category where the Great Russian Past is most prominently displayed is not chocolate, however, but vodka (for a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Roberts 2013).  This is perhaps to be expected.  First, for Russians, vodka is not just ‘a pervasive mediator and sign of relations of sociability of all kinds’, as in neighbouring Georgia (Manning 2012, 183); it is the national drink par excellence.  Second, Kravets (2012, 363) makes the important observation that ‘the official ban on mass advertising [of vodka in today’s Russia] makes other techniques of branding, such as naming, labelling, and packaging, a primary mode of promotion for the industry.’ Third, vodka is an alcoholic beverage which tends to be relatively uniform in colour, smell and taste. To quote Hine (1995, 4), ‘it is no accident that vodka, the most characterless of spirits, has the highest profile packages’.  With over six hundred different vodkas on the Russian market, eye-catching Russian-oriented design can help a brand both establish legitimacy and differentiate itself from the competition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many Russian vodka brands exploit iconographic Russian images in an attempt to sell themselves.
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It should be pointed out that politically charged references were generally rare on vodka labels produced during the Soviet period.  In the post-Soviet era, however, there are countless examples of ideologically loaded vodka labels, bottles and boxes.  When it comes to vodka packaging design in Russia today, there are few examples more impressive than ‘Legenda Kremlya’ (‘Legend of the Kremlin’).  This vodka is marketed as a premium brand, or rather as an ‘élite’ vodka, as the label itself tells us. Its long-necked bottle comes in a hollow black and gold box designed to resemble an imposing medieval manuscript (  When one opens the ‘manuscript’, the first thing one sees is the portrait of ‘Monk Isidore’ above the date ‘1430’, written in an ancient calligraphic style. As one leafs further through the pages of the ‘manuscript’, one learns all about how Isidore stumbled across the recipe for the first Russian vodka one night working alone in his cell in the monastery that once stood on the site of the modern-day Kremlin in Moscow – the ‘legend’ to which the vodka’s name refers. There is a reproduction of an ancient map of the Kremlin, as well as a story about the bottle itself, purportedly designed by an ‘unknown craftsman’ in the late eighteenth century. Last but not least, there is a brief account of how the makers of ‘Legend of the Kremlin’ vodka ‘miraculously’ stumbled across Isidore’s centuries-old recipe, and were thus able to revive this great tradition. In sum, the story behind this brand (con)fuses the origin of vodka and the centre of Russian political power; mythologizing the brand and sacralizing the State go hand in hand in Russia.

Something similar happens with the design for the ‘Russkii Led’ (‘Russian Ice’) vodka bottle. This time, however, the glorious past to which the brand refers is military, rather than spiritual. The ‘Russian Ice’ logo, for example, is ringed by a caption which reads (in Russian) ‘The Glorious Traditions of Russian Victories’. Etched onto the bottle itself is a representation of one of the most famous battles in Russian history, namely that fought against the Teutonic Knights on a frozen Lake Peipus in 1242 ( The victory on the ‘Russian ice’ is deeply imbricated with Russian national identity, since Russia’s defeated enemies were finally forced to recognise the inviolability of her frontiers (its significance prompted Eisenstein to make it the centrepiece of his film Alexander Nevsky in 1936). In an attempt to underline still further the brand’s patriotic credentials, a horizontal band of white, blue and red (the colours of the Russian flag) was added around the base of the bottle during a rebranding in 2008. (In 2008, ‘Russki Led’ vodka launched a press and TV advertising campaign, using Sylvester Stallone, pointing out that Stallone’s great-grandmother was Russian – from Odessa! – and claiming ‘everyone of us has a bit of Russian in them’.)
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‘Russkii Led’ is not the only alcoholic drink to celebrate the inviolability of the Russian land. This theme is also featured on the bottle of ‘Port Petrovsk’ 25-year old brandy, produced since 1997 by the Derbentskii konyachnii kombinat in the southern Russian republic of Daghestan. The back of the bottle tells the story of how Peter the Great arrived at the head of a fleet of ships in a quiet bay, and placed the first stone of what was to become Port-Petrovsk. The ideological significance of this event is immense, since Port-Petrovsk is the modern capital of Daghestan (although today it is known as Makhachkala), an autonomous, and extremely dangerous, Russian republic located in the heart of the historically disputed Caucasus, right next door to Chechnya.  Interestingly, the story told on the bottle of the founding of Port-Petrovsk emphasises the consensual nature of this event (Peter, we are told, places the first stone, and then invites all those accompanying him to do the same). As well as being politically loaded, this bottle also represents an excellent example of a Russian company exploiting imperial iconography to position its product as a luxury brand. A rather stern-looking Peter, dressed in a suit of armour, stares out from a gold-trimmed oval frame located in the middle of the front of the decanter-shaped bottle. The imposing bottle top, a hexagonal clear glass stopper resting on natural cork, is held in place by a length of fake gold brocade on the end of which is a rough-edged red plastic disk, complete with a vaguely medieval looking coat of arms (presumably this is supposed to recall the imperial seal:
Finally, we turn to beer, and specifically the ‘Sibirskaya korona’ brand, which will be my focus for the rest of this paper.  The brand is a market leader in Russia, and was voted ‘No. 1 beer in Russia’ in 2007 and 2009 ( It was launched at a local brewery, ‘Rosar’ in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1996, before being acquired by Russian brewer SUN Inbev in 1999.  SUN Inbev in turn became part of the brand portfolio of the Belgian-Brazilian Anheuser Busch-Inbev group in 2005.  According to SUN Inbev’s Russian company website, ‘The brand’s contemporary image is based on concepts such as quality, style, pride in one’s country, prosperity, generosity of spirit, and nobility’:  In the early to mid 2000s it advertised aggressively in a successful attempt to transform itself from a regional, into a national brand. To quote Morris (2007): ‘Siberian Crown (Sibirskaya korona), another low-end brew, presented Imperial Russia in all its luxurious glory: candle-lit balls, splendid military uniforms and the Russian tricolour flying from every available pole’ (2007, 1399).
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The ‘Sibirskaya korona’ bottle also evokes this imperial theme; the label’s centrepiece is a rather ornate golden crown. At least one website lists it among ‘sixty beautiful beer bottle designs’ (  The bottle itself is not visually striking, however – it rather resembles a Russian version of Tuborg. What makes it interesting for our purposes is that since June 2012 the brand has accelerated its transition from a regional to a national brand.  And it has done so not by modifying the packaging, but instead thanks to a rather extraordinary use of Facebook.  Its Facebook page – which currently has nearly 7500 ‘friends’ – is updated on an almost daily basis with facts, images and quotations all designed to make the viewer feel proud to be Russian. The title of the page is ‘The Map of Russian Pride’, ‘Karta rossiiskoi gordosti’, which echoes its advertising slogan, ‘Est’ chem gorditsya’ (‘Something to feel proud about’):  On this page, one finds countless photographs of, and quotations by, Russian and Soviet military heroes, artists, writers, scientists, cosmonauts and politicians (some very famous, others rather less so).  Even foreign figures, such as the French General de Gaulle and Frédéric Beigbeder, are included, if they contribute to the central purpose of the page – to extol the virtues of the Russian national character, to celebrate the country’s glorious past, and to make the viewer feel ‘proud’ to be Russian.  There are also countless images of natural features, such as Lake Baikal, or man-made structures, such as the fountains at Peterhof, or the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics stadium. No opportunity is lost to compare Russia favourably with the West –we learn, for example, that Moscow’ Ostankino TV tower is much higher than New York’s Empire State Building. The Sibirskaya korona page makes little or no distinction between Soviet and pre-Soviet eras. For example, on 17 February 2013, there was a quotation from 19th-century writer Nikolay Gogol, next to a reference to the cosmodrome at Baikonur and the exploits of Yury Gagarin.  While most of the time, these quotations are so generalising as to be practically meaningless, sometimes they can be highly tendentious – as for example, the quotation by Russian aphorist Konstantin Koushner (born 1944), suggesting cultural similarities between Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia. Most recently, to coincide with 68th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, and victory over Nazi Germany, the company has launched a sub-page, entitled ‘Pobeda, kotoroi my gordimsya’ (‘A victory to feel proud about’). A post on the main page contains the following: ‘Thank you for your victory! The Great Patriotic War [= WWII] touched every family. For each ‘like’ on the page we will donate one rouble to the monument renovation fund! Share the post with your friends and help renovate these monuments to a great Russian victory, the victory of our forefathers!’.  These monuments are in the goroda-geroi (hero-cities) of Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Volgograd.  The different ways in which Sibirskaya korona’s numerous Facebook ‘friends’ interact with it, through their likes, their (overwhelmingly positive) comments and their shares, underline the fact that branding is as much about constructing the consumer’s identity, as it is concerned with positioning the brand itself.  We might even go so far as to say that what links packaging and social media networks – at least those examples discussed here – is precisely the ‘dialectic of mutual creation’ that Miller sees as central to material culture (Miller 2010, 114).
To conclude, in his ground-breaking article on Russian cigarette advertising in the Yeltsin era, Morris made the following comment: ‘both Russian and multinational companies have attempted to connect the brand identity of products to national origin and national identity’ (2005, 660). Our brief survey suggests that this phenomenon is just as much a feature of post-socialist Russian packaging and social media sites as it is of advertising – at least where alcohol is concerned. Since the collapse of the USSR, and especially since the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, a number of alcohol brands have positioned themselves around the myth of the Great Russian Past.  In an unpredictable age, Russia emerges as the ultimate umbrella brand, a welcome source of reliability and reassurance for the Russian consumer in today’s troubled times (Sabonis-Chafee 1999).  Reproducing and representing political discourses in the broader public sphere, the brands under discussion here all resemble Douglas Holt’s ‘iconic brands’ (2006, 374), in as much as they behave like ‘mercenaries, following ideological demands wherever the action is’ (see also Kravets and Örge 2010).  All countermemories that might not concord with the hegemonic view of the Great Russian Past are simply effaced.
The ‘Legenda Kremlya’ vodka box and the ‘Karta Rossiiskoi gordosti’ Facebook page are clearly meant to appeal to Russian consumers’ nostalgic (not to say nationalistic) belief in their country’s great past, and may even serve to reinforce their belief in the possibility of a bright new future, a new imperial age.  It is very hard not to see the re-emergence of Russian national symbols and myths as an expression of what Boym (2001) calls ‘restorative nostalgia’.  In uncertain times, Boym argues, restorative nostalgia ‘proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps’ (2001, 41).  ‘Moreover’, she continues, ‘the past is not supposed to reveal any signs of decay; it has to be freshly painted in its “original image” and remain eternally young’ (2001, 49). Such nostalgia works for Boym rather like myth for Lévi-Strauss (1968), who argues that mythical thought helps to resolve the tension between on the one hand our idea of the world, and on the other our practical, everyday experience of that world.
Not only do they mythologize Russia and the Russian past, however; these brands also help construct the identity of consumers, since they appeal to consumers’ collective sense of self (Hollenbeck and Kaikati 2012).  They materialise – often literally – social relationships, as Fehérváry puts it (2009, 429).  One might even say, following Miller (1987), that they ‘objectify’ collective memories and national identity (on the Internet as a form of ‘objectification’, see also Miller 2010, 118). Hine is surely right when he observes (1995, 202) that ‘packaging provides a way in which people define and understand themselves.’  However, one could say much the same thing about social media networks such as ‘Sibirskaya korona’’s, inasmuch as they appear to be taking over the function of packaging in today’s networked, immaterial world (Kaplan and Haenlein 2011). In other words, to purchase ‘Russki Led’ vodka or share a post on the ‘Sibirskaya korona’ Facebook page is – consciously or unconsciously – to buy into a discourse about Russia as a nation, and thereby about one’s own identity as a Russian.
Brands such as ‘Sibirskaya korona’ are discovering that when it comes to what Miller (2010, 114) calls the ‘ar[t] of seduction’, having a Facebook page can be much more effective than sticking a label on a bottle.  In the light of our discussion, more work clearly needs to be done on the relationship first, between material culture and immaterial culture (or the ‘materiality of digital worlds’, to quote Miller and Horst 2012); second, between material culture and ‘brand culture’ (Askegaard 2006); and third between mythologizing the brand and sacralising the nation state.
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