read and analysis

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

As he waited for his wife to meet him, Guillaume Cuvelier sat in a downtown Manhattan restaurant sipping vodka straight up. As founder and managing director of Spirits Marque One, a liquor importer, Cuvelier wondered if patrons of such an upscale bar would soon be ordering his new vodka by its name: SVEDKA. It was mid-1998, and the product was set to launch in just a few months. Scanning the bar for the competition’s vodka bottles, Cuvelier ran through the marketing campaign in his head.1

The U.S. government defined vodka as a neutral spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” As one food and beverage writer explained, “Good vodka is considered to be one without the harsh, rubbing-alcohol fumes of ethanol.”2 The now-popular liquor originated in the 14th century in either Russia or Poland (depending on which history you believe) as a spirit distilled from rye or wheat. In the early 1800s, the introduction of filtration and dilution techniques allowed vodka to evolve into something more refined but no less potent.

As Cuvelier enjoyed his drink, the image of James Bond came to mind—described years earlier by an industry observer as “the first upscale vodka drinker.”3 Consumers were increasingly imitating Bond’s discerning taste for high-priced vodka. In this climate, Cuvelier reviewed his own pricing, distribution, and positioning one last time. He hoped he was right that the vodka market was ready for a midpriced option. He wondered if there really was an opportunity below the Bond tier and above the very low-priced products. With a small marketing budget, Cuvelier had to be correct in his efforts to position his brand as he created a new segment.

On Trend

Trends in the marketplace inspired Cuvelier to take a closer look at opportunities in the spirits business (whiskey, gin, and vodka were among those classified as spirits). In 1991, he had received his MBA from the Darden School of Business at the conclusion of a two-year hiatus from his position with LVMH’s Möet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton.

As an industry insider during the 1980s and early 1990s, Cuvelier had been inspired by Absolut vodka’s success as a product, brand, and category leader. “Pre-Absolut, you could say that vodka was vodka was vodka,” he said.

Cuvelier believed there was room to compete in the category by offering his own twist on the concept of name-brand vodka. With that purpose in mind, in 1998, Cuvelier founded a small entrepreneurial team of industry experts in New York City. That same year, vodka was the top-selling distilled spirit, representing 24% of total spirits consumption in the United States, up 3.6% in volume sales from 1997. The growth in premium vodka was in stark contrast to the negative long-term trend for most other spirits. (See Exhibit 1 for vodka sales from 1975 to 1998 and projections for the category.)

The Market

Branded vodka dated back to the late 1860s, when Smirnoff cultivated the endorsement of the czar, engaged in comparative advertising with competitors, and paid patrons of Moscow bars to demand Smirnoff and accept no substitutes. Russia’s connection with the category became prominent in the minds of many consumers. A leading imported vodka from Russia, Stolichnaya, had been introduced to the United States as recently as 1965. The brand leveraged its Russian image, evoking a strong connection to its origin and heritage. But “Stoli stumbled after the Soviet downing of Flight 007 in 1982, [which] hurt sales of many Russian products.”4 Once a Russian import, Smirnoff was eventually produced in the United States and came to dominate the domestic vodka segment, capturing almost 20% of the market share by 1998. Until the launch of Absolut, Smirnoff dominated the premium-price vodka segment with a brand name that derived authenticity from the family’s Russian heritage.

The launch of Absolut in 1979 and its now-famous ad campaign helped the brand attain its pop-culture status. In 1998, Absolut spent $18 million on advertising.5 Years later, USA Today reported: “Absolut had pioneered selling distilled spirits on image, persuading consumers to buy prestige in a bottle for $20. But the new prestige vodkas, at $25 to $200, have become what Absolut was 20 years ago.”6

It took more than a decade for the Dutch Ketel One and American Skyy (then the only domestic vodka priced above $10) to enter the market. New prestige vodkas available at a high price point did indeed seem to become what Absolut once was. The Business of Spirits stated that the price for vodka “increased to $30 with the debut of Grey Goose, Chopin, and Belvedere in the late 1990s. Now, the debut market [was] flooded with $30 vodkas.”7

The success of Grey Goose proved people would pay $30 for a bottle of vodka; in 1998, its sales increased 50% from the previous year.8 Cuvelier had watched as “consumers became increasingly aware about the look, quality, and origin of vodka.” (Exhibit 2 shows the number of new vodkas introduced from 1996 to 1998.)

Smirnoff was not alone in its high-volume sales and market share results. Brands such as Popov, Gordon’s, McCormick, and Barton (each priced under $10) sold the most cases and enjoyed the largest shares.9 A significant portion of these sales was for the larger-size plastic bottles.

Cuvelier believed that a midpriced vodka could capture some volume sales from the under-$10 market. “This standard vodka category had never been expanded to include consumers who were willing to stretch their wallets a little bit,” he said.

The Product

Vodka could be manufactured inexpensively out of many different raw ingredients and didn’t need to be aged. Its standard alcohol content was 40% or 80 proof. Because the staple ingredients were relatively cheap, vodka companies invested in more complex distilling and filtering methods as well as flavor ingredients to distinguish their brands. Marketing campaigns often highlighted “more exotic backstories” to justify higher prices and profits.10 Indeed, vodka’s smoothness and thickness could vary from brand to brand. “The burn is usually associated with inexpensive vodkas,” said Robert Plotkin, founder of BarMedia, a beverage consulting firm.11

Cuvelier was dedicated to creating a high-quality product that could be distinguished for its soft, silky drinkability. He selected Lidkoping, Sweden, as the manufacturing site. Cuvelier knew the country had recently joined the European Union, causing it to deregulate the alcohol monopoly. “My plan was to be the first to effectively develop and produce 80-proof Swedish vodka immediately after the reopening of the market,” he explained. “I wanted the vodka to be from Sweden, so I could take advantage of the Absolut tailwind.”

SVEDKA outsourced its production to large, established industrial facilities. The glass bottles were imported from Germany, decorated in France, and shipped to the factory in Sweden to be filled with vodka. The finished product was shipped in cases to the United States.

Wine Enthusiast confirmed the quality of Cuvelier’s product, rating SVEDKA 93 out of 100. Classifying the vodka as a “Best Buy,” the review said, “We can’t remember using the word ‘complex’ when describing a vodka before, but this one shows a tightly knit set of characteristics that deserve applause.”12

SVEDKA would initially be available in the standard 750 mL and 1.75 L bottles. Larger and smaller sizes could be added once the business grew. “This gradual size rollout was common industry practice, especially for a start-up brand,” Cuvelier said. While many brands were extending their selection to include flavored vodkas, SVEDKA focused on its core unflavored product for the launch.

The Price

In addition to the option of imitating the premium prices of recent imported vodka successes, there was the under-$10-per-bottle market, which Cuvelier estimated was approximately 80% of the market volume (also known as the “standard” vodka segment, it ranged from $5 to $9 for 750 mL). In fact, in 1998, 23

million cases were purchased at retail prices less than $10 per 750 mL bottle (Table 1).13 And then there was the third opportunity: to be a midtier player between the high and low price spectrums.

Table 1. Vodka category price, units sold, market share, and launch year by brand, 1998.

Brand Price

(750 mL) Cases (9 L)

(in thousands) Market Share (percentage) Launch Year

Grey Goose $25.00 50 0.2 1997 Ketel One 18.00 450 1.3 1989 Absolut 16.00 3630 10.6 1979 Stolichnaya 16.50 1,100 3.2 1970 Skyy 11.50 702 2.1 1993 Smirnoff 10.00 6,720 19.7 1960 Gordon’s 7.00 2,155 6.3 1960 Popov 6.50 2,230 6.5 1960 Note: Market share calculation is based on total case volume for imported and domestic vodka.

Data sources: Adams Business Media; Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; case writer estimates.

Exhibit 3 shows the supplier case prices for vodka. In 1998, according to a Standard & Poor’s survey of the alcohol industry, operating margins for U.S. alcohol beverage companies were about 20%, “well above the 12% to 14% range for packaged food companies.”14

Cuvelier estimated that wholesaler margins for SVEDKA averaged 25%. Retailers’ margins varied from 30% to 35%.

It was industry practice to offer retailers volume discounts. Cuvelier created Table 2 to estimate the discount levels he would be expected to offer.

Table 2. Estimated discount levels based on case quantity discount.

Discount Level

Case Quantity Discount

Estimated Sales

Savings to Retailers

1 3 10% 8% 2 5 15% 13% 3 25 75% 19%

Source: SVEDKA.

To reach a final everyday suggested retail bottle price, Cuvelier had to consider the costs along the wholesale and retail channels. The wholesaler’s net laid-in costs were the sum of the free on board (FOB) price, the U.S. Federal Excise Tax (FET), state tax, and freight costs. (The FET per proof gallon was $13.50 in 1998.) SVEDKA classified the mandatory FET and individual state taxes (which varied by state) as hard production costs.

Pricing was tricky, and critics warned Cuvelier that if the price were too low, consumers might think the vodka was low-quality. But if SVEDKA were priced too high, consumers might question its value. A midrange price would risk SVEDKA’s getting lost among the more premium brands. Already, higher-priced brands were encountering competition from the superpremium competitors. In The Business of Spirits, author Noah Rothbaum commented on the dilemma SVEDKA faced: “Many companies with high-priced spirits are

concerned that their products soon will be leapfrogged by other, even more expensive brands, stealing their attention and market share.”15

Target Customer

Despite the risks he identified, Cuvelier was optimistic. “I believe that SVEDKA is the only brand in the vodka category to bridge the two ends of the category, appealing to both upgraders and consumers looking for the best possible value,” he said. “I see SVEDKA as being at the crossroads of the market.” SVEDKA wanted to capture the new vodka drinkers as the category was expanding, along with the “upgraders” who were looking for an opportunity to drink something better than the standard offerings. SVEDKA could be the vodka of choice for both price-driven groups.

In addition to considering consumer price sensitivity, Cuvelier segmented vodka drinkers into two large groups based on age and consumption behavior. Regular vodka drinkers tended to be price-conscious and loyal to a brand; consumers in this first segment were mostly older males. The second group consisted of the 21-to-35-year-old consumer, who represented 40% of the vodka market. (Exhibit 4 shows the breakdown of distilled spirits drinkers by category and age group.) Cuvelier thought this target group was also price- conscious, but not so brand-loyal. He was confident that SVEDKA, if positioned properly, would be able to tap into this younger crowd.

Distribution

Off-premise (or off-trade) channels were the liquor and retail stores, while on-premise (or on-trade) channels included bars, hotels, and restaurants. Brands were usually launched simultaneously in both the on- trade locations and retail outlets. The on-premise percentage of volume was higher for premium brands because consumers often ordered drinks mixed with a specified brand-name vodka. For example, in 2003, 51% of Ketel One’s volume was from on-premise. The percentages of on-premise consumption for Grey Goose, Absolut, and Stoli were 48%, 38%, and 37%, respectively.16

The spirits industry was a highly regulated business. Producers and importers could not sell directly to the retailers; instead, they were required to sell to licensed liquor wholesalers, who then serviced retailers. Licenses were issued by the state and therefore restricted wholesaler distributors from operating beyond any given state’s jurisdiction. Cuvelier relied on a small internal sales team to manage the distributors as key clients. By leveraging relationships within the industry, “I tried to overcome the biggest hurdle of getting distributors on board,” he said.

Another obstacle in distributing liquor was the issue of control states (also known as monopolies). In 18 U.S. states, accounting for about 25% of the population, state governments exercised monopoly control over the wholesaling and/or retailing of alcohol (Exhibits 5 and 6). These states, among them North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington, were scattered across the country. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Virginia were not only control states but also ranked among the top 15 states for retail spending on distilled spirits.17 Most control states had higher taxes and prices than noncontrol states. For marketers, obtaining distribution meant persuading each independent state liquor commission to carry their brands.

In all cases, pricing was uniform and dictated by the state, leaving very little room for promoting brands. In most control states, retail prices were much higher than those in “open” neighbor states, but there were a few notable exceptions, such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Temporary discounts and displays were allowed but highly regulated (and each state has its own set of rules) and needed to go through a lengthy approval process with the local liquor board. Shelf positioning was not negotiable. Another limitation in control states was the lack of convenience: Many had an insufficient number of stores, often with poor locations and limited operating hours.

Off-premise retailers were divided into food, drug, and liquor stores. Food stores included groceries, delis, and larger wholesale clubs. Drugstores such as Walgreens comprised the drug category. Liquor stores were further divided into the independent and control-state-owned liquor stores. Cuvelier estimated that the breakdown was 35%, 20%, and 45% for food, drug, and liquor stores, respectively. “The big chains, across all categories, were harder to penetrate, since they required high margins and heavy marketing support and established market share,” he explained. “These bigger outlets relied on strong consumer pull for top brands.”

For vodka, independent retailers were responsible for significant volume sales. And they could give the brand strong and sustained support because they generated higher margins on SVEDKA than high-volume established brands while offering a very competitive price. The pricing of SVEDKA, Cuvelier thought, would be attractive to them—which translated into eye-level shelf positioning, floor displays, and spontaneous retailers’ recommendations. By prominently displaying SVEDKA alongside key competitors, store owners could give the brand invaluable credibility. And so SVEDKA planned to concentrate sales efforts on these midmarket retail outlets. In particular, Cuvelier intended to focus on landing the family-owned operations, considered midtier stores in terms of traffic and business, and devote very little effort to the chain stores such as large grocery and drug chains that also sold liquor in noncontrol states.

The distribution strategy for SVEDKA required a network of wholesalers and brokers. Cuvelier thought it would be difficult to gain a foothold among large wholesalers in the biggest states, so he looked for what he called “challenger” distributors where he could get more attention and support from management and sales. These operated primarily in open states. (See Exhibit 5 for retail sales of vodka in the top 25 states by retail sales in 1998.) Robust collateral pieces explaining the benefits of the product, brand, and company were given to all retailers as education materials.

Cuvelier believed that, given his limited budget, launching SVEDKA in the midmarket off-premise locations was the most effective strategy. He instructed his sales force to secure distribution in liquor stores only. But he still harbored doubts about which particular states he should select and the order in which they would receive SVEDKA shipments.

The Brand

The first association consumers would have with the product was its name. Cuvelier had searched for a word that evoked the vodka’s Swedish heritage. During his many trips to Sweden, the word Svensk (“Swedish”) caught his attention; it appeared everywhere. He combined it with the word “vodka” to come up with an easier-to-pronounce version: SVEDKA. Although focus groups and the packaging agency didn’t confirm the wisdom of his choice, Cuvelier stayed with his intuition. (Exhibit 7 shows the SVEDKA bottle with its original logo, which has since been updated.)

The name was fitting for the product’s positioning. Cuvelier envisioned SVEDKA as a challenger brand, with a personality like JetBlue in the airline industry or Target in fashion: an inexpensive, chic alternative. It

was a fun option that challenged the status quo in a category that was taking itself too seriously. SVEDKA empowered the consumer with a different choice where there wasn’t much discrepancy among the products in its category. “The category is locked in sameness,” Cuvelier said. “Each brand relies on a stated marketing recipe of bottle shot plus product benefit plus cocktail recipe plus historical reference.18

The Campaign

Cuvelier estimated he had about $350,000 to spend in his first year on marketing SVEDKA (not including promotions to wholesalers and retailers, which could include the discount levels, support materials, sales force incentives, and in-store promotions). He allocated this budget among media, point of sale (POS), trade shows, creative, and sampling.

Until distribution reached key markets, Cuvelier did not use traditional advertising. Generally, brands were promoted in print (with magazines as the dominant medium), outdoor, broadcast, and electronic media at an increase of 14% over the $256 million spent in 1997.19 (Refer to Exhibit 8 for the total advertising expenditure in 1997 and 1998.) Cuvelier wanted SVEDKA to achieve distribution, brand awareness, and word of mouth before he launched a national campaign. He was left to reassess the best use of his dollars across the following marketing methods.

Trade press and PR

Cuvelier viewed trade relationships as the first step in communicating about his brand. There were a small but influential group of trade magazines and writers he needed to acquaint with SVEDKA. He bought a few full-page trade ads and entered SVEDKA in vodka contests to drum up press. He succeeded with the Wine Enthusiast 93 rating. Such high marks were in line with the more expensive Grey Goose (which received a 94) and Ketel One (93) and higher than the ratings for Stolichnaya (91), Skyy (90), Belvedere (89), and Absolut (90).20 The favorable results validated the brand in the eyes of the wholesalers. Their excitement about SVEDKA would determine how quickly it was embraced by the largest, bottom portion, the core consumer. All media outreach was limited to the trade outlets. SVEDKA used its high-profile reviews to fuel favorable trade press articles. But additional public relations efforts toward larger publications were not scheduled for the launch.

Point of sale

Brand visibility would be at the store level through POS materials. Because of the emphasis on an off- premise distribution strategy, Cuvelier allocated marketing dollars toward enhancing the in-store experience (midtier liquor stores). POS and store signage (shelf, display, and window materials) helped bring the brand to life at the point of decision making and purchasing. The Wine Enthusiast ranking was displayed on POS pieces to provide the unknown product with credibility.

Trade shows

SVEDKA planned to sponsor booths at top industry trade shows. Attendees at these shows included wholesalers and retailers, as well as the media and competition. Although trade shows were costly and time-

consuming, Cuvelier believed that having a presence at industry events would develop brand recognition as well as provide continuing insight into industry trends.

Creative

The collateral materials that supported the SVEDKA booth at trade shows, in addition to the POS materials and trade press kits, fell under the creative investment line item. Cuvelier wanted all branding elements to have a cohesive look and feel for both internal and external audiences. The same images appeared as limited ads in trade magazines such as Beverage Industry News.

Sampling

And finally, when the product was to be introduced in a new store, SVEDKA intended to host sampling events. SVEDKA wanted to put its own twist on the customer-engagement tactic by designing customized, branded barware test tubes. Cuvelier was certain that the ROI on these 1,000 to 1,500 sampling events per year (two to three hours per event with a small staff and collateral materials) was enormous. SVEDKA had only one shot at the launch campaign, and Cuvelier was confident in his tactics. But he did find himself reexamining his budget in the final days before his product’s debut.

Exhibit 1

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

Projections: Vodka versus Total Distilled Spirits (in thousands of 9 L cases)

Vodka Total Distilled Spirits Year Cases ACGR* Cases ACGR 1975 31,898 -.-% 179,731 -.-% 1980 36,411 2.7 190,903 1.2 1985 35,681 –0.4 173,508 –1.9 1986 34,717 –2.7 164,531 –5.2 1987 33,626 –3.1 162,024 –1.5 1988 34,712 3.2 159,008 –1.9 1989 35,054 1.0 155,865 –2.0 1990 35,362 0.9 159,190 2.1 1991 33,397 –5.6 147,026 –7.6 1992 32,964 –1.3 148,015 0.7 1993 32,441 –1.6 144,162 –2.6 1994 31,910 –1.6 139,996 –2.9 1995 32,175 0.8 137,330 –1.9 1996 33,002 2.6 138,814 1.1 1997 32,912 –0.3 138,740 –0.1 1998 34,088 3.6 140,568 1.3

1999 projected versus 1998 35,000 2.7 141,905 1.0 2003 projected versus 1998 35,500 0.8 143,240 0.4

*Annual compound growth rate.

Data source: Adams Liquor Handbook 1999.

Exhibit 1 (continued)

Vodka Sales, 1993 to 1998 (in millions of 9 L cases)

Standard Vodka

Premium Vodka

Source: SVEDKA sales presentation, 2001.

Exhibit 2

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

New Distilled Spirits Introductions by Category, 1996–98

Number of Introductions Share of Total Category 1996 1997 1998 Category 1996 1997 1998

U.S. whiskey Canadian Scotch Irish Total whiskey

10 7

39 2 58

14 1

18 2 35

19 5

42 4 70

U.S. whiskey Canadian Scotch Irish Total whiskey

3.9% 2.7

15.3 0.8

22.7%

6.1% 0.4 7.8

0.9 15.2%

5.1% 1.3

11.3 1.1

18.9% Gin Vodka Rum Tequila Brandy and cognac Cordials and liqueurs Prepared cocktails Neutral spirits Total nonwhiskey

11 37 31 19 29 44 26

– – 197

5 24 26 24 44 50 20

2 195

10 23 27 46

104 72 18

1 301

Gin Vodka Rum Tequila Brandy and cognac Cordials and liqueurs Prepared cocktails Neutral spirits Total nonwhiskey

4.3 14.5 12.2 7.5

11.4 17.3 10.2 -.-

77.3%

2.2 10.4 11.3 10.4 19.1 21.7 8.7

0.9 84.8%

2.7 6.2 7.3

12.4 28.0 19.4 4.9

0.3 81.1%

Total 255 230 371 Total 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

Data source: Adams Liquor Handbook 1999, 5.

Exhibit 3

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

Supplier Vodka Case Prices

Price Ranges Percentage Under $34.99 16.5 $35.00 to $39.99 21.4 $40.00 to $49.99 18.8 $50.00 to $59.99 22.1 $60.00 to $99.99 2.8 $100.00 to $119.99 18.3 Total 100.0

Data source: Adams Liquor Handbook 1999, 135.

Exhibit 4

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

Consumers of Distilled Spirits by Category and Age Group (in percent)

Age Groups Total Category 21–24 25–34 35–44 45–54 55–64 65+ Adults Distilled spirits 62.7 60.6 55.2 53.1 44.4 35.2 51.7 Bourbon 15.2 13.6 12.8 12.3 12.6 9.5 12.5 Blend/rye 3.7 6.3 6.0 6.6 7.3 5.9 6.2 Canadian 6.9 10.0 11.6 11.3 13.3 9.1 10.7 Scotch 6.7 8.3 9.0 12.9 11.4 8.8 9.7 Irish 3.5 3.0 3.7 4.5 3.0 2.3 3.3 Gin 16.5 15.3 15.0 16.4 13.7 10.4 14.5 Vodka 30.4 29.6 25.5 24.5 21.8 15.4 24.3 Rum 34.4 28.2 26.0 23.1 15.8 7.9 22.1 Tequila 26.7 24.9 20.1 17.9 9.5 5.1 17.2 Brandy and cognac 4.1 7.3 8.3 11.0 8.8 7.7 8.2 Cordials and liqueurs 27.3 21.6 21.6 21.9 19.0 11.6 20.0

Adult population (in millions) 12.3 38.9 43.1 34.4 22.1 31.9 182.7

Note: Includes consumers age 21 and older only.

Data sources: Simmons Market Research Bureau, Spring 1998 Study of Media and Markets; Adams Liquor Handbook 1999, 291.

Exhibit 5

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

Retail Sales for Vodka in Top 25 States, 1998 ($$ in millions)

Rank State Sales Control

or Open Percent Share of

All Distilled Spirits 1 California $738 Open 10.40 2 Florida $517 Open 6.50 3 New York $468 Open 7.40 4 Illinois $341 Open 5.00 5 Texas $333 Open 5.80 6 New Jersey $317 Open 3.90 7 Pennsylvania $307 Control 3.70 8 Michigan $296 Control 3.70 9 Ohio $221 Control 3.50 10 Georgia $203 Open 2.80 11 Washington $198 Control 2.50 12 Wisconsin $190 Open 2.80 13 Connecticut $179 Open 1.90 14 Massachusetts $177 Open 3.20 15 South Carolina $149 Open 1.70 16 Arizona $147 Open 1.80 17 North Carolina $146 Control 2.00 18 Minnesota $144 Open 2.10 19 Maryland $140 Open 2.00 20 Colorado $139 Open 1.90 21 Virginia $133 Control 2.00 22 Indiana $127 Open 1.90 23 Tennessee $117 Open 1.40 24 Missouri $113 Open 1.80 25 Louisiana $102 Open 1.70

Top 25 $5,942 84.00 Bottom 25 $1,280 16.50 Total United States $7,222 21.20

Control Open Top 25 6 19 Total United States 18 32 Top 25 vodka sales, in millions $1,301 $4,641 Top 25 percent share 22 78

Data source: Adams Liquor Handbook 1999, 34.

Exhibit 6

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

Map of Control (Dark) and Open (Light) States

Data source: “US States by Alcohol Control,” posted to public domain under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) by “Demi,” November 8, 2006, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_States_by_alcohol_control.svg (accessed May 22, 2009).

Exhibit 7

SVEDKA Vodka (A)

SVEDKA Bottle with Original Logo

Source: SVEKDA.

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