Being a professional marketer, I am fascinated to explore the role of consumer brands in Russia over the last century. That was a true roller coaster ride!
Before the October Revolution, during Tsar time, branding in Russia was developing similarly to branding in other developed countries. Department store Mur and Meriliz, in the center of Moscow, just steps from the Red Square, was tempting customers with a wide range of imported goods.
The famous jewelry House of Fabergé was founded in 1842 in St’Petersburg by Gustav Faberge. Fabergé eggs became world-famous and Russian tsars have developed a tradition to give them to empresses as gifts.
Chocolate factory Einem, opened in 1851 by Ferdinand Theodor von Einem was developing really well and got prizes at the trade events including a Gran-prix at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. It was also a socially responsible business, which gave part of the profits to charity. By the beginning of 20th century Einem had several factories and stores and its confectionary was well-known and loved by consumers.
Bolsheviks, who came in power as a result of the October Revolution of 1917 loathed bourgeois habits and values. Blue-collar workers and peasants were not used to high society lifestyle and did not have an eye for exquisite things, nor the money to pay for them. The motto of the Revolution was – “Everything around me belongs to people, everything around me belongs to me”
Mur and Meriliz was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The co-owner and director of the store for 50 years, Philip Walter was laid off. Having lost all his money and purpose in life, he died in 1919.
The House of Fabergé was also nationalized in 1918. In early October, Carl Fabergé left Petrograd on the last diplomatic train for Riga and then to Germany, but died soon after. The rest of the family also had pretty grim fortune – some got imprisoned by Bolsheviks, some fled to Finland. Even though Alexander and Eugéne Faberge opened Fabergé et Cie in Paris in 1924, they had a modest success. The good times were over.
Einem was also nationalized after the Revolution and was re-named as Red October in 1922.
First years after the Revolution were turbulent and difficult. Young Soviet Republic lacked management skills, country was in ruins and for a short while in the 1920s business was sort of allowed again. This was called New Economic Policy (“НЭП”) and it was needed to both calm down the people and develop the country. That initiative was productive and deserves a separate post, but it was short-lived. By the end of the 1920s country moved to the planned economy and building socialism.
For most of the Soviet time brands did not play as important role as before. Instead of bakeries, butcheries etc., named after their owners, we had stores named after the food group, which was sold there. Most stores had such signs as: Food, Bread, Milk, Cheese,Vegetables & Fruit, Drugstore etc. Typical names for the big specialised stores were «House of X»: House of Fabrics, House of Porcelain, House of Shoes.
Stores, named “Food” usually had several counters for bread, milk, cheese, sausage, meat and sweets and none of the products were available to self-take. Rather you had to first stay in line to tell the salesperson, what you want, then stay in another line to pay and then return to collect the purchase in exchange of the receipt.
Stores were numbered, distribution was centralized, so most stores had the same assortment. There were however some branded stores or service outlets. For example, the chain of food stores, called “Diet”, which did not sell any diet food, just normal food. (in Russian Diet has two meanings – one is the weight-loss diet, the other is just a daily ration). Or there was a super popular and prestigious hairstylist outlet in the center of Moscow, called Charodeika (“Enchantress”) although all other stores were called “Hairstyling salons”. Or – some department stores in Moscow were named after towns in other socialist countries, such as Leipzig, Buharest etc.
Moving to the product level it gets even more complicated. Most products were unbranded, but were divided by category. Let’s take bread. A typical assortment in a bread store would include “Nareznoy baton” (white bread, which had “cuts” on top, which gave it the name), “Borodinsky bread” (dark rye bread with cumin, probably named after a place where the recipe was developed initially), “High-calorie pаstry” ( high-calorie pastry – a name that would’ve been a complete flop now) and others. All these are not the brand names, rather names of the categories. The same was seen in the sausage group, so dear to Soviet consumers.
Some of the products did have “brand names” though. For example, in the sweets group, there was a toffee named “Golden Key”, chocolate candies “Belochka” (squirrel), “Mishka” (bear) and many others and cakes named like “Kiev cake”, “Praga”, Leningradsky”. All these names could also be treated as categories though. The same called toffee could be made at the famous Red October factory (former Einem) and then it was premium quality and at the no-name regional factory. So consumers typically asked from where did the product come from.
Sugar, salt, flour, rice and other staples were sold as commodities, totally unbranded.
The same situation was in all other areas, such as make up, perfumes and grooming products. There were “Red Moscow” perfume, “Leningradskaya” mascara etc. However, there were quite clear standards and recipes for the products. Praga cake was always a cake made of chocolate biscuit dough, chocolate butter cream and chocolate glazing on top. It could differ a bit depending on the manufacturer, but it was still recognizable since the recipe stayed the same for years and was approved by relevant authorities.
The most interesting subject in branding in Soviet time is though not the branding of consumer products, but the branding of the country in general, branding of Lenin, branding of Soviet values and achievements. It is fascinating that the country, which was so unbelievably good with propaganda and building non-tangible brands completely failed on the level of consumer branding. But on the other hand – who needs brands in the times of deficit, when any product will be bought by consumer?!
Packaging of the consumer products during Soviet time is another rich and interesting topic, which will be discussed in a later post.
Modern Russia is quite boring in terms of branding, since country is back on the capitalism path, so branding here works very similar to branding elsewhere. One interesting topic is how the country made a transition to brands and which curiosities existed on that way. But that will be the topic of some later post.
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.