Cristal received an unexpected, free endorsement from rap artist and music executive Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn Carter, who sang about the product and sold it in his nightclubs. In 2006, however, a strange scandal arose when he interpreted (many say misinterpreted) an interview with a Roederer executive in the Economist as "racist," and called for a boycott of the bubbly in the unique bottle.
How does a brand deal with an unexpected endorsement from an unconventional source and what happens when that source dishes out some equally unanticipated, and perhaps unwarranted, backlash?
Michel Janneau is the deputy managing director at Louis Roederer Champagne and Thierry Consigny is the projects director for the French brand-building agency, Saltimbanque where, along with Roederer, he counsels clients such as Danone, Baccarat, Lacoste and Le Bon Marché.
Champagne seems to have a different perception than "regular" wine, non?
Michel Janneau – It's a veritable worldwide triumph of marketing. In a simple analysis, 90 percent of people don't know what they're drinking when they have Champagne. You're not necessarily even paying attention when you drink it…you're talking with a cocktail, it's got bubbles, but people don't even know it is wine—they simply think of it as something different.
How did you start working with artists?
M.J. – We're interested in the other ten percent [of champagne drinkers] that are left. We're after a way to communicate with them. We were looking to do some smart sponsorships and in 2003, we learned that the BNF [the French national library] had the largest photo collection in the world—five million prints—and that they had no budget to show any of it.
So you developed a unique branding strategy that catered to this niche demographic?
M.J. – Yes, but this isn't the narcissistic style of sponsorship where you just buy a piece of art and hang it in the wine cellar. We created a photo grant and were able to exhibit around the world. The library decides on the expo—we can't just go in and say 'Do an expo on Capa,' but we work together.
Why do artists choose to associate themselves with wine and not, say, an insurance company?
Thierry Consigny - Maybe it's because artists like wine. (He flashes a knowing smile.) Maybe they like associating themselves with something like wine instead of other products that are pure commerce. Wine is pleasure and a creation.
In its current version, with the home page split between the artist's 'installation' on the top and Champagne on the bottom, your website looks like a game of association.
T.C. – There's no link between the two halves of the site.
So if they’re completely separate, what’s the association you want to make?
T.C. – Everything below the line is no less a work of art than what's above it.
That sounds contradictory. Why is that? Why does wine have to use an artist to convince drinkers that what's in the glass can be a work of art? What kind of branding are you trying to do?
T.C. – There's a fine line in there. Winemakers and chefs aren't always artists. Without launching into philosophy, artists ask about the human condition. Cezanne doesn't write "What is man?" on his works, but it still asks the question. Winemaking isn't the same; we don't say, 'We're artists!' but what we're trying to say is that for those who put it in their lives, Louis Roederer is the Champagne that goes with art.
Dom Pérignon's site (which currently features a glitzy Karl Lagerfeld/Helena Christensen collaboration) doesn't talk about Champagne. They're glamour, we're art…We're not necessarily snobs, but there's a relationship between what we think about a brand and what we taste. But if you're associating yourself with this kind of high-end stuff, your wine better be good.
But when the wine you make is of a certain quality, branding can take care of itself?
T.C. - We didn't pay Truman Capote to write about us [in his unfinished novel Unanswered Prayers]. We didn't know that they'd use Cristal in Lost in Translation, but the idea it conveys was necessary for a character. Dom Pérignon would have meant something else. In American Gangster…Cristal is used to send a very specific message.
M.J. - Cristal always had a certain, unique politic; we only make it in certain years, with specific parcels of land. There's three to four times more demand for it than we have product to meet that need—we've never paid a cent on advertising for Cristal.
T.C. – As a result, we don't use branding as a tool just to sell more—we don't need to.
So, if supply and demand are tipped wildly in your favor, what do you do?
M.J. – There's an extreme confusion in Champagne branding. There are a couple of us who go out wining and dining to get that ten percent [of aficionados], but people also get a little tired of that. Champagne is a constant battle. There are three or four mastodons and then a bunch of little guys who fight like hungry dogs.
What I don't like is people who are expressly going after making the most expensive champagne in the world. It's brand idiocy! It's polluted! (Janneau moves up to the front edge of his chair, bristling at the very idea.) There's too much bling, bling! (He says, repeating the English word some Frenchmen now use to negatively describe the flamboyant habits of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.)
T.C. – That'll get the Moscow mafia excited, but in the end, it brings down the brand. The head of Hermès once said something like, "Be careful not to make something ugly. Someone might buy it."
Speaking of artists and bling bling, how do you deal with both sides of the Jay-Z fiasco—first with unexpected free publicity from an unexpected source, then protecting your brand when something bad happens?
M.J. – Some of us at Roederer like it, others don't, but it's a huge stroke of luck for us that it happened—it modernizes our image, but it's the brand's notoriety that made it happen.
… but looking back at what happened, is it understandable why some people at Roederer were wary?
M.J. - It blew up in our faces like a firecracker.
How do you deal with such a branding crisis?
M.J. - We stayed calm and realized we couldn't do much. We clamped down, sent out one communiqué stating our position. We were overwhelmed, but knew it would blow over.
I was frustrated. I wanted to meet with him over a bottle of Cristal, but he didn't want to. You've got to stay consistent—we felt the boycott, but we adjusted. The publicity wasn't all bad and you can do some damage control.
Nobody controls their product more than us—we're only on 20 hectares (50 acres) but we also realized that our product was bigger than us. Roederer walks a fine line between the vines and the brand. We're often busy navigating it.