How can the company convince its select group to switch to Noilly Prat if they haven’t heard of it in the first place? Is advertising the key?
“Non, non, non,” insists Rocourt. “I am sorry to disappoint you. Wrong again. We hardly spend anything at all on straight advertising as such.”
So how is it that a brand few people appear to have heard of, and which is rarely promoted through advertising, has stood the test of time and indeed flourished for more than two centuries?
The company points to its participation for nearly three decades in the organization of barman competitions, international contests of haute cuisine, catering school tours, chef training courses and finely-tuned hotelier programs. It is an innovative, long-term strategy that pays off handsomely. Those who are to be dispatched off to the world’s top hotels, bars and restaurants will, with a little bit of luck, be singing the praises of Noilly Prat before they have time to don their toques.
It certainly worked for UK celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, the proud holder of three Michelin stars. “The two basic things you must have in your kitchen,” he declared, somewhat grandly, in an interview in Now magazine, “are balsamic vinegar and Noilly Prat” (December 2001).
“Now that,” Noilly’s Rocourt announces proudly, “is the sort of advertising which money just can’t buy.”
The proof of the Noilly also must be in the drinking, where again the company’s executives have every reason to be proud. Whereas most spirit turnover is down on a global level – some by as much as eight percent per annum – Noilly has yet to report a year of negative growth, apart from a short-term bad patch in the 1980s. In this context, annual growth of around one percent has to be viewed as extremely good news.
Let it be noted that a vermouth is an aromatized wine made from a neutral tasting, dry white wine, which is then blended with a botanical infusion. In Noilly’s case, that’s two white wines – fortified Picpoul and Clairette from the never-ending vineyards of the Languedoc. The concoction is left to mature for 18 months in Canadian oak casks, slowly evaporating and subsequently maturing outdoors, exposed to the elements of the south of France. Of course you can throw vermouth together in a fortnight if you are so minded, but you won’t end up with a Noilly.
Not that Noilly has cornered the vermouth market – far from it – its market share is but a meager two percent. But if you consider just the dry segment of vermouths (Noilly’s category) then its market share rises to ten times that amount.
While Noilly’s direct competition, Martini, remains the undisputed market leader, each and every premium aperitif has to be viewed as a potential rival. Noilly competes simultaneously with whiskeys served in a bar as well as a dash of white wine poured into a recipe. With such a wide and varied list of competitors out there, maybe it’s as well that global vermouth consumption is far from uniform – slightly in decline in the States, while growing in France; France accounts for just under one-third of Noilly’s global sales.
Call it incestuous marketing if you will, but Martini insists that, when it comes to the French market at least, Martini and Noilly are complimentary products. Sandrine Sellos, who heads up Martini’s public relations department for the Bacardi group in Paris, insists that their market positions are to a considerable extent quite distinct.
“Martini Rosso and Martini Bianco are best sellers [in France],” she explains, “whereas Martini Dry is but a tiny part of our market. At Martini, we are targeting the 25 to 35 age group, whereas Noilly, I believe, are going for the more mature customer. Martini is synonymous with conviviality and fun, whereas Noilly is aimed at the more mature or sophisticated up-market drinking connoisseur.”
Meanwhile, those cooking course competitions, haute-cuisine training courses and barman festivals have been coming home to roost. The chic Jean-Louis restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington (President Nixon was something of a vermouth man himself) is proud to offer its fresh red snapper with shallots, coriander and Noilly Prat sauce. And the classic dry martini, as every barman surely knows, is two parts Noilly and eight parts gin. So does that mean that old 007 himself is a Noilly man? Actually in Ian Fleming’s first book, Casino Royale (1953), Bond calls for Kina Lillet in his martini (and mixes vodka and gin… it’s very upsetting). More recent films such as You Only Live Twice and Live and Let Die show a preference for Martini vermouth with vodka.
Does Noilly regret the loss of such an important icon among its fans? Hardly, Rocourt is quick to retort, pointing out that Martini is her “big brother” in as much as Noilly is owned by the Bacardi group – Martini’s parent company. Rocourt classes Martini as mainstream, placing Noilly in a niche market for the connoisseur. Quite apart from being in the same group, she says, success for Martini means that the vermouth market in general is flourishing.
Of course vermouth was the definition of cool in its heyday, and many celebrities, including Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, succumbed to its charms. Recently there appears to be a resurgence of interest with particular recognition for Noilly Prat. British wine-expert Andrew Catchpole recently declared that the French aperitif had suddenly become fashionable again – and “absurdly fashionable” at that. Noilly was also voted France’s saveur de l’année last year – not bad for a product that began life back in the Napoleonic era.
Speaking of the Napoleonic era, production techniques at Noilly remain the same as they did over two hundred years ago. Jean-Louis Mastoro, who heads up the well-oiled tourist circuit around the company’s Marseillan premises (annual headcount: around 80,000 visitors), credits Noilly’s nuanced approach to the brand’s success.
“We are perfectly well aware that there are many brand names in the world of spirits and we therefore take nothing for granted,” says Mastoro. “We have to fight for our place along with the rest of them. It’s just that we prefer to do this through the back door, if you will, through our visits, courses and competitions, rather than through direct advertising. In any event, that latter option would simply be too expensive for us.”
The company is not stagnant in its promotion but likes to practice moderation. “We have recently modernized our labeling,” says Mastoro, “but we have to strike the right balance between tradition and modernity.”
But Noilly doesn’t share all of its secrets to success. On a visit to Noilly’s “room of secrets,” where twenty-two herbs from all five continents are mixed into the wine to make Noilly Prat, a request for the recipe went unanswered. “You can ask Monsieur Noilly,” Mastoro replies with a twinkle in his eye. “Or indeed his son-in-law – the late Monsieur Claudius Prat. As for me, alas, I have to report that my lips must remain sealed. This is a brand which began in 1813 – and here at Noilly we have every intention of ensuring that it is still around two centuries from now.”