Style maven Steve Kemble embraces his new role as the first-ever U.S. LGBT brand ambassador for Stoli —and he plans a makeover of the tarnished brand
Most liquor companies have “brand ambassadors” — folks who travel around promoting the value of their brand over another. The title “ambassador” is honorary at best. But in the case of Stolichnaya Vodka, it has ended up being far more accurate than they could have imagined.
It all started last year, during the ramp-up to the Sochi Olympic Games held in Russia this past February. The country’s abrasive ruler, Vladimir Putin, began cracking down on gay rights, going so far as to suggest openly gay athletes would be dealt with severely. The backlash in the U.S. led many in the gay community to protest … and the protest target of choice was to boycott the Russian premium vodka popularly known as Stoli.
International politics and potent potables had rarely been so much in evidence in the club scene. And a special kind of ambassador was needed.
Enter Steve Kemble.
Kemble — sassy style guru, celebrity event planner, radio personality and North Texas’ most visibly outrageous bon vivant — was approached by Stoli last April to help the company repair its tarnished image.
“They handled [the backlash] poorly,” Kemble says frankly over a Stoli and tonic at the Meddlesome Moth. “They’d be the first to admit it. They came to me and said, ‘We have to correct this.’”
While Dallas’ gay community didn’t initiate the protests, it was one focal point, especially in the Southwest.
“[Dallas] certainly was the epicenter in the region. There was such a strong push that virtually every gay bar in Dallas dropped Stoli. And because Stoli [has headquarters] here,” they were particularly interested in rehabilitating their brand, Kemble says.
Still, Kemble prides himself on his finely-tuned bullshit detector — he wasn’t going to get involved if only short-term damage control was called for. He wanted to make sure Stoli was committed to becoming involved in the gay community.
“They are serious about [their involvement],” he says. “I am so proud of them because they really are getting invested in the community, I think. I can tell by everything they have in place.”
And one of the things put in place was Kemble himself, who last month was announced as the first-ever LGBT brand ambassador for the spirit.
This is hardly Kemble’s first foray into the realm of makeovers. As one of the premier event planners in Dallas, and even the nation, he’s accustomed to presenting things in the best possible light and coordinating the details that create buzz. (He’s currently planning the wedding for local TV reporter Steve Noviello in New York later this month.) Kemble knew an occasional tasting and a few rainbow ads wouldn’t do the trick.
“It’s an education process,” he says. “It wasn’t just picking up the phone and talking to a few bars. You can even get it back into the clubs, but just putting it there doesn’t mean anyone is going to drink it.”
Kemble began working behind the scene with the brand even before the official announcement, first getting Stoli to sponsor Razzle Dazzle Dallas in June. The vodka is also a sponsor of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade Sunday, and its brand flavors will be the official liquor at the 33rd annual Black Tie Dinner in November.
“The parade, Black Tie Dinner, the BTD after-party — all are sponsored by Stoli,” he says.
Part of his job, though, is more than just arranging signage and donations of alcohol; it goes deeper than that.
“There are still people who have [a negative] perception [because of the Russian treatment of gays]. But you have a corporation as big as they are admitting, ‘We made a mistake.’ And trying to correct it.”
Kemble believes the gay community will have a forgiving attitude and embrace the spirit once it realizes the sincerity of the company’s commitment to the gay community. And there is a secret weapon of sorts.
“They are coming up with all kinds of specialty cocktails for Black Tie!” Kemble says.
Cocktail recipes — that’s a language the gay community speaks that crossed over cultural differences.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.