Stolichnaya vodka is donning rainbow colours on its logo as a major sponsor for WorldPride 2014, which got underway in Toronto on Friday.
But less than a year ago, the international brand was the target of a boycott by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Canada, in response to a Russian law that prohibited the promotion of “non-traditional” relationships.
Speaking to Global News on Friday, Stoli’s LGBT brand ambassador said the boycott and the negativity directed at the brand is in the past and the company is excited to be supporting the event, held for the first time in North America.
“The one thing that I’m thrilled about is that the commitment that Stoli has had for the [LGBT] community… was not deterred by the boycott,” said Patrik Gallineaux in a phone interview.
“Most of the people engaging in the boycott last year did so because they actually share Stoli’s core qualities of passion and sincere support for the LGBT equality,” he explained.
He went on to say that most of those same people didn’t understand that Stoli, despite its origins in Russia, is legally not a Russian brand or even Russian vodka.
The vodka is distributed by Luxembourg-based beverage company SPI Group and is distilled in Latvia. Stolichnaya sold in Russia is a completely different brand.
While SPI is owned by Russian businessman Yuri Scheffler, SPI has no connection to the Russian vodka bearing the same name and the company has been fighting a trademark dispute against the Russian government since 2003.
Because of that dispute, Gallineaux said Stoli can’t legally be marketed in Russia and it’s not sold internationally as Russian vodka: It’s labelled “premium vodka.”
“It’s really ironic, when you know the facts, that people were boycotting the brand that is not only so heavily LGBT-supportive but also is burdened with fighting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression, just like our own LGBT community inside and outside of Russia,” Gallineaux said.
WorldPride 2014 organizers, Pride Toronto, are happy to have the sponsorship and said there wasn’t a lot of discussion or criticism of Stoli’s involvement with the event. Kevin Beaulieu, the committee’s executive director, said Pride Toronto neither “endorsed nor rejected the idea of a boycott because we recognized that discussion [of LGBT rights] is good.”
Gallineaux said the company didn’t feel the effect of the boycott in all of its markets, but it did take a toll in Canada.
He said the company was transitioning between marketing companies in Canada and not enough effort was put into managing the backlash against the brand in Canadian markets, which unfolded last summer in the midst of LGBT Pride events happening across the country.
Gallineaux couldn’t provide any details about the financial toll the company felt from bars in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, that refused to sell Stoli.
Toronto’s Wayla Bar hasn’t given up on the boycott, almost a year later.
Manager Brian Duvale, who was busy preparing to the 10-day festival when Global News contacted him on Friday, said that’s because Stoli, despite being produced in Latvia, still contains ingredients that come from Russia.
A report in the New York Times last September laid out the origins of Stoli’s components, reporting “its water comes from Latvian springs, its main ingredient, raw alcohol distilled from grain, still comes from Russia. Its bottles are from Poland and Estonia, its caps from Italy.”
Global News confirmed with Gallineaux that Stoli does get grain for its vodka from Russia, but he said that’s one thing that keeps the Russian connection it can no longer have.
He questioned the efficacy of consumer boycotts in general and said targetting the vodka brand was “grasping at straws” when there are other ways of condemning Russia for its treatment of the LGBT community.
He also said he it was fitting that the Stoli gets its grain from a place in Russia called Raduga, which translates to mean rainbow — a symbol for the LGBT community.
But, Duvale had a different take.
He went on to say vodka is one the bar’s biggest-selling products and some clients thanked the establishment for pulling Stoli and Russian-produced vodka from its stock.
“It’s one thing to throw a party for people and actually contribute to what’s going on in Russia,” Duvale said. “As long as they’re buying product from Russia, they’re not doing anything, really, except throwing a good party.”
Rather than just putting up advertising promoting the brand during Pride and selling alcohol at parties, Duvale said Stoli should team up with human rights organizations that work with the LGBT community.
Gallineaux told Global News the company has partnered on events — that are “in the spirit of goodwill while having fun” — to raise funds for Toronto’s Church Street Community centre.
Duvale said continuing with the boycott is important because the issue of LGBT rights in Russia isn’t getting as much attention as it did before the Olympic Games took place in Sochi.
The Russian law essentially made illegal public discussion of homosexuality and gay rights. The law was widely condemned by foreign governments and international human rights organizations.
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