Putin at a Price: Monetising the President’s Image

PHOTO by TASS
...but sometimes Stalin or Pushkin are more lucrative

“Our customers stole all the toilet paper. I also gave out a few rolls when someone asked. Right now we’re expecting more stock but people continue to ask for more,” says Dmitri Zhdanov, co-owner of the President Café in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.

This patriotically-themed eatery boasts photographs of Putin throughout his life, a life-size cardboard cutout and a toilet rug in the design of an American flag. It’s been open to the public for just three weeks but already gained notoriety worldwide. Businesses have used Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name before, but none have stirred up quite as much of a commotion.

“There is a trend among businesses using Putin’s name and likeness, but since the events surrounding Crimea, this is more reflective of sustainability rather than growth,” says Alexander Eremenko, a managing director at BrandLab.

Eremenko says that although a few products have become successful – such as Putinka vodka – others are mainly tacky and illegal. Secretmag picked a handful of original projects, and discovered how to build a successful business in the image of the president.

The Restaurant Business

The easiest way to make money off the President’s image is in the restaurant business: simply hang out a few of his photographs to start off. Some have done so abroad including ‘Putin Pub’ in Israel, ‘Bife Putin’ in Macedonia, and two Putin cafes in Serbia.

But this café in Krasnoyarsk seems the most genuine. There’s more to it than just Obama’s face on the toilet tissue. For instance, the Russian national anthem plays every night at midnight.

Zhdanov and his partner, Svetlana Lautman, put in a lot of time and money into the design, starting off with a capital of $75,000. Putin’s popularity became an underpinning reason for developing the idea, although Zhdanov himself doesn’t align himself with politics and tries to stay out of it. But if the President gets elected democratically, there’s no need to reproach him: “We’ve got things on our plate, they’ve got theirs.” he diplomatically states.

Alexander Eremenko reckons that similar establishments share the same kitsch concept. These cafes are likely to attract just Russians and Russophiles.

"In Kragujevac [Serbia], there are few foreigners, and even then most of those are Italian. They do not come to us at all, they are looking for a completely different atmosphere," says Milos Tomich of Serbian café Putin.

Locals nonetheless visit often. The cafe is famous for its Russian cuisine, there are ten different kinds of vodka and a variety of Russian beer. But Tomich says any other type of business with such a name would not do quite as well: "You can brand your bakery with Putin, but people will still buy bread in their local one."

The Israeli Putin Pub also goes down well with the locals.

“In Jerusalem, Putin Pub is a brand, especially for Russian speakers,” says Igor Kuchin, Putin Pub owner. “We’ve created something like a community, with 80% of our customers being regulars, and Putin isn’t the reason they come here.”

But maybe there are regulars because the pub has been around for 17 years. Just as the locals will buy bread from their local baker in Serbia, people will drink in their local watering hole. When it was just opening, Putin wasn’t in office as the president– the pub was actually named after Russia’s prime-minister, whose surname was well-received among the expats and Russian speakers.

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President Café in Krasnoyarsk
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Putin Pub in Jerusalem

Zhdanov also hopes to create a clientele of loyal visitors. In Russia he pioneered the café idea and wants to capitalise. He first plans on expanding to Irkutsk, where his business partner Svetlana Lautman has been doing business for 15 years.

“For now we cater for only local people, although some Chinese tourists visited recently after seeing us on TV. We didn’t have cuisine from French or the Caucasus before someone asked for it, although it isn’t part of our concept,” says Zhdanov.

The patriotic menu includes steak, a ‘President salad’ and chicken wings. When the café gains an alcohol license, it will offer ‘Tricolor’ cocktail which is also known as a ‘Patriot’ and forms the colors of the Russian flag in a shot glass. The average bill is $2.5 during the day and $5-8 in the evening.

“A restaurant that incorporates Putin’s name is not guaranteed to be successful,” Fara Kuchkarov, a strategy director at Depot WPF branding agency, assures us.

“You can do well promoting theme-based dinners, but the restaurant business in general is quite conservative. People rarely go to niche establishments. It all depends on the overall mood and the right amount of media attention, which both vary weekly.

Fragrance

“We had been surrounded by run of the mill merchandise like t-shirts, cups and calendars. So we set out to make something more eye-catching and sophisticated,” recalls Maxim Fomichev, creator of Leaders Number One aroma.

A year ago he launched Leaders magazine and the perfume was a way to promote the brand offline. It was designed in France under the guidance of Belarusian perfumer Vlad Rekunov and his team. Leaders Number One contains hints of lemon, bergamot, black currant, balsams and cedar amongst others.

The concoction surprisingly particularly struck a chord with people and the first batch of 2,000 units sold out at $90 each in GUM in a week and a half. If some bottles hadn’t been given out as gifts, the company would’ve collected $150,000 in revenue. Fomichev says the profit pales in comparison to the total expenses and part of the proceeds went to charity. The second batch is expected soon and will be sold at the slightly higher price of $105. “This is a high-quality product dedicated to Vladimir Putin, hence it can not be made from cheap components," Fomichev explains.

The perfumer plans to expand production and cater to customer requests from other regions and abroad. Fomichev also considers launching a clothing line under the Leaders brand and Number One, dedicated to President, with patriotic overtones. He is confident that only unique products can become commercially viable. “The president’s image is the symbol of Russia for many people. I hope younger generations come up with such creative ideas,” Fomichev says.

PUTINVERSTEHER belongs to a creative bunch. Its logo was stamped on silver rings with Putin’s image. Now, it can be found on clothing. “By wearing PUTINVERSTEHER you are not only supporting Putin, but challenging the entire world with its corporations, revolutions, bombardments, double standards, and “bearded” women,” states company’s website. To “challenge” will cost you $75 on average.

It is still not clear whether these businesses will stand the test of time and how competitive they will remain. “Yet media, image, influence, indirect links, and associations would not suffice to build a powerful brand,” reckons Fara Kuchkarov. He cites Latin American countries as an example, where, despite Putin’s recognition, none of the attempted products took off.

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Tracing Another Leader

Joseph Stalin’s name has often popped up in the business world. In March 2016, independent pollster The Levada Center reported that 54 percent of people it surveyed believed that Stalin was a favorable figure in the country’s history. Despite these figures, it isn’t that easy to make money off Stalin’s image as fifty four percent of companies have found out. Opened in 2011, Koba, a restaurant in Novosibirsk with the slogan “Comrade Stalin’s meat” lasted for two years; the Ukrainian StalIN experienced a similar fate, with the conflict in eastern Ukraine a contributing factor.

“I am slightly obsessed with history. When trying to come up with a brand and logo, I remembered that Stalin was constantly smoking his pipe,” says Andrei Makarov, founder of the Stalin Vape Shop in Khanty-Mansiysk, an electronic cigarette company. He’s been in business for half a year and makes $750 monthly. Makarov respects Stalin for staying in Moscow when WWII started.

“Putin has contributed a lot to Russia’s prosperity. But if it wasn’t for Stalin, we would have been occupied by the Germans,” he says.

Makarov is particularly proud of the shop’s logo. He also plans to get a patent in order to avoid later hassle when the business flourishes, but the law states that famous names are the property of their heirs, so he’s unlikely to succeed without the consent of Stalin’s descendants.

Stalin Vape Shop is the only functional project discovered by Secretmag. Putin still tops the popularity charts despite his predecessor’s historic clout. But this could change in years to come.

“It’s not hard to calculate whether Putin or Stalin is more profitable. I believe it is Putin and it will remain that way for now,” reckons Fara Kuchkarov.

“Pushkin, most likely, will be triumphant in the long run. He represents something eternal, more than just Crimea and flag-waving.”