MOSCOW — Vladimir Dovgan is on the front line of an intensifying fight between Russia and the outside world. The battlefield: highway billboards and commercial clips on TV.
"It's not a war of products that's going on in the world," says the Moscow entrepreneur, the impresario of a growing movement to fight foreign competition and boost Russian goods. "It's a war of advertising."
"People all over the world drink Coca-Cola," he says, citing a symbol of foreign goods that were powerfully seductive to Russians in 1991, the year the country was released from the consumer confines of the Soviet Union. "But I think they're really drinking advertising."
Coke is seen as the quintessential American beverage, and "Drink Coke" was more than a jingle to Russians: It was an invitation to taste Americana.
But today the flood of Coca-Cola and other imports has threatened to drown native industries. And many Russians feel nostalgic for familiar brands and resentment toward imports squeezing them out of the market.
"Buy American" is out in Russia. "Buy Russian" is in.
Advertising, which was nonexistent in Soviet Russia, is now a big business here, and ad campaigns are playing on rising patriotism to sell Russians on everything from stereos to chocolates.
Ad executives note that the main beneficiaries of the trend are members of the food industry. For example, "Many of [the ads] are for sour-milk products, like prostokvasha [a fermented milk drink], with those dear, warm, familiar Russian names. Even I buy products because of that," says Galina Savina, general director of the Moscow office of the Friedman and Rose advertising agency.
Ivan the cartoon
A favorite example of patriotic advertising, cartoon character Ivan Poddubny, has popped up on billboards all across the city to do for the milk produced by Moscow's Cherkizovsky Dairy what Popeye did for spinach by flexing his generous biceps and saying he owes it all to Cherkizovsky.
Poddubny has a nostalgic appeal to Russians: He wears a telnyashka, the striped T-shirt issued to all Russian soldiers, and twirls the thick, curling whiskers that are the pride of Russian manhood.
His creators have said he is meant to represent a boyar, a member of the ancient Russian nobility whose traditional accouterments are often used to represent the glory of old Russia. It isn't just good milk, Poddubny implies, it's the bounty of this ancient land.
Poddubny's popularity is a reflection of growing pride in things Russian as well as the hope of "young people and some professional people for stability in the economy," Ms. Savina says.
The trend has strengthened as the national economy itself begins to show signs of revival, such as last week's assertion by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that for the first nine months of the year, industrial output is up 1.5 percent, compared with a 4.5 percent decline for the same period last year.
The "buy Russian" hook is so powerful that even some foreign firms have taken it up: Sanyo electronics are now being marketed as "designed for Russia," and Savina admits to buying Yeliseevsky-brand butter, a namesake of Moscow's elegant, beloved Yeliseevsky grocery store, even though the butter itself was made in Finland.
But recently, unlike Poddubny's biceps, this land has not been so bountiful. Russia's declining industrial and agricultural output has hurt the pride of many consumers, who boast that the country was self-sufficient under the Soviet command economy and decry the appearance of imports. For these Russians, the Coca-Cola and Snickers bars for sale in every shop are a symbol of national economic malaise.
Dovgan's company purpose
"We understand that lots of enterprises are closing, and people are left without work," Mr. Dovgan says. "They have no money to buy decent food or educate their children. These people don't buy other products. If a butter or candy factory closes, [its employees] don't have money to buy furniture, clothes, and shoes, and those factories close. On a subconscious level people have started to understand that they need to buy Russian products because it means the future of the country."
Dovgan's eponymous company, which uses "Buy Russian" as an official slogan, is designed to defend Russian enterprises against their wealthy foreign foes by turning those competitors' own weapon - marketing - against them.
"We put the question to ourselves: Could our beggarly little enterprises, which are now barely alive, compete with big, powerful corporations like Nabisco, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Cadbury, the biggest world corporations?" Dovgan says. "We saw that we needed to think up an unusual approach."
That "unusual" approach: Spare the Russian enterprises the expense of undertaking mass-marketing campaigns and let them produce.
Dovgan takes a 2 to 3 percent licensing fee. His corporation then puts its trademark on goods produced by struggling Russian enterprises, guaranteeing their quality and marketing them under the corporation's umbrella advertising campaign.
He markets only products from firms that conform to his standards of quality, and offers money back if customers are dissatisfied. He also puts a hologram on every bottle and bag, like those on ATM cards, to prove that it is an authentic Dovgan-approved item and not an imposter.
Dovgan's trademark - his face and signature - is one of the best-known in Russia, and it adorns boxes of oatmeal, bags of rice, cups of coffee creamer, and bricks of butter, a few examples of a spectrum of 200 Dovgan products made by 200 different producers.
"When we gathered the strength of these 200 companies into a single fist, we found we could compete," Dovgan says.
'Better than Coke'
Some of Dovgan's products are traditional Russian foods, such as kvass, a traditional fermented bread drink brewed for centuries by Russian peasants, which is becoming a popular alternative to Western-style soft drinks. He claims kvass is "better than Coca-Cola, according to the Russian mentality."
But he also markets pte, unseen in Russia until imports began flowing in, and concedes that some foods novel to Russia, such as yogurt, have made an indelible impression. Other new items are frozen vegetables and dinners, which are growing in popularity, especially among young people, and French cheeses.
"How on earth could our Russian cheeses possibly compare to French ones?" asked one Mr. Movsiyants, shopping at Moscow's posh Seventh Continent grocery store, which carries both Russian and imported goods.
Russian food has been praised by natives from Boris Yeltsin down to babushki on park benches for containing few chemical additives, an assertion that finds resonance with Russians who have concerns both about the quality of imported goods - which can be spotty and is not regulated by Russian law - and the quantity of preservatives those imports are alleged to contain.
But, as the natives say, you can't argue with taste. And it may be that national tastes win the day for many Russian firms, not marketing.
It has been said that patriotism is but the love of the foods one ate as a child. "There are a lot of things that just don't exist in the West that we have here," says Irina Muratova, a retiree shopping with her husband at Seventh Continent, naming kefir, a buttermilk-like drink, and tvorog, a slightly sour, softer version of cream cheese, both traditional Russian breakfast and tea-time foods.
Sausages, milk, butter, bread, chocolates, and cookies are all beloved staples of the Russian diet, and consumers frequently mention these as items they prefer to buy locally.
"This is all very beautiful," says Mrs. Muratova, gesturing out over row upon row of coolers containing brightly packaged frozen foods.
"But it doesn't taste very good."