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It's a rap

Published:  23 July, 2008

Standing on the banks of the tranquil river Charente by Chteau Courvoisier in Jarnac, who would have thought that the fortunes of the Cognac category could have been turned around by a handful of American hip-hop artists? After years in the doldrums, along with the likes of whisky, adrift while the white spirits - vodka, white rum and tequila - continued their seemingly inexorable rise, Cognac finally received the sort of ringing endorsement that money just can't buy - not even with the big budgets of LVMH (Hennessy); Seagram, now Pernod Ricard (Martell); and Allied Domecq, now Fortune Brands (Courvoisier).

Nick Faith, in his authoritative book Cognac, published last year, acknowledged the debt of gratitude to the rappers: The most surprising element in the new fashionability of Cognac is its affiliation with the Afro-American rock, rap and hip-hop artists.' Indeed, Busta Rhymes had a top-five hit in the American rap charts last year with a song that contained the following lyrics:

Give me the Henny,

You can give me the Cris [Cristal],

You can pass me the Remi,

But pass the Courvoisier.

As Faith puts it, the likes of Puff Daddy (later P Diddy, and now simply Diddy), Snoop Doggy Dogg, 2Pac and Ja Rule have also serenaded the charms of gnac'. He writes: Stars like these simply cannot be bought. Even if they were willing, their fee would simply break any promotional budget.'

This lifeline has been seized by the Cognaais - or, to be more accurate, the brand owners - particularly Mot Hennessy (LVMH), capitalising on its wealth of knowledge and experience with A-list celebrities leveraging its perfumes, Champagnes and even its luggage. Martell, though, has been sadly neglected in its final years with Seagram, except for its high-profile sponsorship of the Grand National, which wasn't that much of a turn-on for core Cognac drinkers, and then again during its protracted transfer to Pernod Ricard - last year PR CEO Patrick Ricard was gloriously dismissive of the UK and especially the French market for Martell (see Harpers, 2 July 2004, p.4).

Seizing the day

Courvoisier has taken the opportunity afforded by the rappers - and stasis on the Martell front - to surge ahead, certainly in the UK. Boasting a 42.1% volume market share in the UK (AC Nielsen, MAT to June 2005), the Courvoisier team is claiming to spend in the region of 2.5 million in the run-up to Christmas, when more than a third of all annual Cognac sales occur. Senior brand manager Liz Hodson unveiled a string of promotions for both on- and off-trade channels, supported by its tongue-in-cheek Earn It' advertising campaign, which was designed to appeal to core Cognac drinkers and aspirational VIPs'. Hodson claims that Courvoisier is transforming the UK Cognac market', establishing itself as luxurious and aspirational', and is recruiting new consumers, having sold an additional 300,000 bottles since 2002. She said that in the on-premise sector - which used to be dominated by Martell in its pomp - where growth is flat, Courvoisier has increased by 2.3% in value and 4.6% in volume. To gain goodwill in the trade, it has embarked on a programme of training more than 500 bartenders in the different styles of Cognac and how to mix it.

On the consumer side, it has launched the & Club, a concierge service' for 1,000 aspiring VIPs', aimed at fast-tracking influential Courvoisier ambassadors into the right venues. Needless to say, there are the inevitable cocktail-shaker kits, but the brand has also joined up with fashionable designers such as Thomas Bartlett, whose Courvoisier shoes' are being created by traditional shoemaker GJ Cleverley. More prosaic, there are gift boxes for VS at Christmas, and Sainsbury's is taking the VSOP Exclusif brand in selected stores. There are also money-off coupons, a competition to win dinner at Le Gavroche, one of London's best restaurants, and a deal on Le Gavroche chef Michel Roux's cookbook.

They are using direct mail and have gained listings with Thresher and Matthew Clark, as well as having a 1-litre VS in Asda. Asked about discounting and loss leading at Christmas, Hodson disarmingly replied that there was no need with Courvoisier, since it was doing very nicely without any need to discount. We'll see She defined core consumers as '35-year-old and above' men, while the aspiring VIPs are 25-35-year-old men, educated and image-conscious'. Her aim is for Courvoisier to be the most desirable alcohol on earth'.

Jennifer Szersnovicz, Courvoisier's trade and public relations manager, said that the UK is one of the stars' in the global market for Cognac, along with the United States, China, Mexico and Russia. Courvoisier is the third-largest Cognac brand worldwide but number one in the UK and number two in the US after Rmy. She added that Asia remains difficult', having lost 1.5 million cases since 1994. The US represents 40% of total category sales, but 75% of that is in VS; and it is the Afro-American, Hispanic and Chinese metropolitan communities in the US that are accounting for most of the 3% growth.

With growth and recruitment of new consumers, the UK is back in favour, hence the significant investment. Perhaps it is time to Kneel!' - as one recent ad demanded - and reassess Cognac