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Rappers’ Delight

Its hip-hop connections have helped the US Cognac market to triple in 10 years.  Now that rap is mainstream, where does this leave Cognac? asks Jonathan Goodall

THERE’S a charming vignette in one of Eminem’s videos where the bad-boy rapper is seen lying on a hospital bed taking Rémy Red, a fruit juice and Cognac premix, intravenously in his arm.

This is probably not the image the brand would have chosen to portray at a time when the sensible drinking message is paramount, but it’s important to stress that Rémy would have had no control over the "artistic direction" of this video.

The hip-hop community has embraced "Yak", as it’s known, as the last word in bottled bling, and it is now the preferred vocal lubricant of any self- respecting rapper.  While this might bemuse the traditional French farmers who grow the grapes for the world’s most illustrious brandy, they are undoubtedly grateful – whether they will admit to it or not.

As recently as 1998 these same sons of the soil were blockading the town of Cognac, in true French tradition, in response to slashed orders from their paymasters at the Cognac houses.

This was a year of economic crisis in Asia, Cognac’s then number one export market, and demand nose-dived.  During these dark days, none of this rural community in southwest France would have dreamt that salvation would eventually arrive in the shape of Dr Dre, LL Cool J and Lil’ Jon & The East Side Boyz.

The American Brandstand chart, incidentally, monitors the number of brand references in the US Billboard Top 20 singles.  It isn’t concerned with just drinks brands, but all brands, which serves to highlight Hennessy’s phenomenal achievement.

According to American Brandstand, riding high, at number three is Rolls Royce, the automobile of choice; Cadillac, for the discerning driver, has screeched in at number two; but storming in at number one it’s Hennessy Cognac AKA ‘Henn’, ‘Henny, ‘Hen-roc’ or ‘Henn Dog’."

While the Cognacais have not trumpeted their newfound success among the "gangsta" rapping elite, this is no mere blip on the marketing radar.  The US Cognac market has actually tripled over the last decade, in tandem with hiphop’s move into the mainstream, to reach about 40 million bottles a year, worth some US$1.25 billion.

In so doing, the US has overtaken the Asian markets to claim the number one spot in Cognac’s very own, all-important hit parade.  "Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris, you can pass me the Rémy, but pass the Courvoisier," rapped Busta Rhymes in the cleaner version of his hit song Pass The Courvoisier.

It’s reminiscent of Elvis’s "You can do anything, but lay offa my blue suede shoes," only these days, of course, it’s "boxfresh" Nike trainers that walk the walk and rappers who talk the talk.

Hen Dog Pass the Courvoisier was the rap song that alerted the rest of society to the Cognac connection in 2002, but, as the American Brandstand chart clearly shows, Hennessy is the word on every rapper’s lips.

In Square Dance, Eminem wonders, "What’s gotten into me? Drugs, rock and Hennessy." It is now America’s best-selling Cognac by a country mile, selling around 1.8 million cases.  These endorsements from America’s most popular musical artists have been invaluable to the Cognacais, precisely because they have been free of charge.

I can’t help feeling Petey Pablo is missing the point somewhat when he raps: "Now I got to give a shout to Seagram’s gin, Cause I’m drinkin’ it and they payin’ me for it."  In return for this support, Hennessy has sought to give something back to the black community through its involvement with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama whose goal is "social, political and economic acceptance for African-Americans".

Hennessy has also been involved with the Thurgood Marshall scholarships for black students.  Brandy, especially Cognac when they could afford it, has long been the spirit of choice among African-Americans, and, with the inexorable rise of hip-hop, the top rappers found they could afford it – lots of it.

It’s even been suggested that the adoption of "Yak" is a very deliberate choice to differentiate between black American culture and the predominantly white, whisky sippin’, rock ‘n’ roll and country boys.

So Cognac’s current stint in the limelight shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the men and women who can’t be accused of being backwards in coming forwards.  The main events Rémy Martin’s "Urbanity Program" sponsors events in nightclubs like The Highlands in LA, where it sponsored Usher’s 24th birthday masquerade ball.

Camus chose to launch its Camus4U brand amid the flashing lights and thumping bass at Club Sessa in New York City. And Pernod- Ricard has put its marketing muscle behind Martell, having acquired the brand from Seagram in 2002.

The following year it launched its successful "Rise Above" campaign in black-targeted magazines such as Vibe, Savoy, Trace and Black Enterprise.  The ads feature up-and-coming recording artists like Sanford Biggers and African-American chef, Gerry Garvin.

These campaigns, events and sponsorships cleverly reflect the aspirational zeitgeist of urban America.  Jay-Z has even installed a Rémy Room at his 40/40 club dedicated to his favourite brand.

The word from Jay-Z is that, "Cognac is a classy, sophisticated and really smooth thing to drink", and it doesn’t come any better than Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII in its gold-encrusted Baccarat crystal bottle "whenever I wanna have a really relaxing moment, usually with a cigar".

A snip at US$5,000 a go.  Hero worship Consumer research by Washington DC-based New Media Strategies found that 60% of those who consider themselves hip-hop fans said they are more likely to see films or buy products that feature or are endorsed by their hip-hop heroes.

Lucian James, president of San-Francisco-based brand consultancy, LucJam, and the man behind the American Brandstand chart, reckons that 60-68% of US Cognac drinkers are African-American.

This is light years away from the white linen table cloths and tweed jackets of America’s country clubs, Cognac’s traditional hunting ground.  But has the rapping fraternity infused Cognac with the kind of image that the Cognacais can be happy with? Whether or not they enjoy the subtleties of this great brandy in private, publicly rappers present Cognac as juice for "gettin’ wasted".

Master P "needs some weed" with his Henn, while Snoop Dogg is partial to "Hennessy and Buddha".  Claire Coates, communications director at the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac), insists: "It’s not a question of us being happy or not.

The consumer, the one who pays, decides what to do with it.  Making Cognac is an art; so is making music," she adds, and it’s hard to argue with her.  But Cognac’s connection with those who, shall we say, walk on the wild side has contributed to a degree of schizophrenia in the region.

Ironically, it was the Cognac houses’ refusal to contemplate sullying their beloved brands with any form of mixer that contributed to Cognac’s oldfashioned image and long-term decline in the pre-hip-hop years.

Now, however, they have made a complete about-face, introducing a whole new category of Cognac-based drinks, specifically in the US.  They’re sweet, brightly coloured, accessible and affordable, representing a kind of "MacCognac" aimed at the masses.

Understandably, they mostly use VS quality Cognac from the lower-end of the quality scale. What the Americans call "sippin’" Cognacs (ie some VSOP but generally XO, at the top of the scale) are left unadulterated, by producers and rappers alike.

Alizé, a premixed Cognac and passionfruit drink produced by the House of L&L in Cognac, was launched way back in 1984 and blazed the trail for others to eventually follow.  Other Cognac and fruit juice drinks such as Hpnotiq, owned by Heaven Hill Distilleries, and Envy, distributed by LA-based Majestic Imports, have taken up the challenge admirably.

Both drinks, incidentally, are bright blue. Camus4U, another Cognac/fruit premix, uses the strapline "L’impertinence du Cognac" – a clear indication of the sea change in attitudes.  De Fussigny has met the challenge with its NYAK brand, which it describes as being "at the crossroads of tradition and innovation".

Its tube-like packaging might resemble a deodorant, but it has certainly struck a chord among its target audience, signing rapping star Jadakiss as a brand spokesman.  Which brings us back to the question of image.

Charles Braastad, commercial director at Delamain, is philosophical about it, possibly because his brand shares the same US importer (Kobrand) as Alizé.  Delamain is one of the last remaining family-owned Cognac houses and it produces only top-notch Cognacs from the Grande Champagne region.

"There is no such thing as a bad market," says Braastad. "With whisky, people are happy to mix the big brands with cola, but they still enjoy single malts by themselves."  (Should the Scotch whisky industry ever decide to follow the rapping route it might like to consider the slogan "Highland bling", for which I will happily accept a 30% commission).

The grape growers back in Cognac can certainly afford to be magnanimous towards Eminem and chums.  It seems like only yesterday that angry Americans were pouring First Growth Bordeaux down the drains in protest against France’s refusal to tow the line in the Iraq war.

American counter-culture, it would appear, has been more forgiving. "Young African-American consumers in the United States have been very good for the Cognac industry," observes the BNIC’s Claire Coates.

Qu’est ce que c’est rap?

In April 2002 Courvoisier tried to educate 900 grape farmers in the ways of hip-hop by screening the award-winning Pass the Courvoisier video.  "They didn’t know what to make of it," said a spokeswoman.  "There are times when I don’t ask myself too many questions," says Yan Fillioux, Hennessy’s master blender who has been practising his craft for 38 years.

He confesses that rap doesn’t really do it for him. "I’m more of a classical music kind of guy."  But before anyone accuses Cognac of leaping on the "latest bandwagon", consider that hiphop has been around for at least 20 years and some of its biggest stars, like P Diddy, are fully-fledged entrepreneurs with clothing lines and recording studios of their own.

And hiphop is no longer the exclusive property of African-Americans.  Eminem, need I point out, is white and there are now rappers with Hispanic and Asian ethnic backgrounds breaking onto the increasingly international rapping scene.  All of which puts Cognac in a promising position for the future.

In the cut-throat business of selling liquor nothing succeeds like success.  And, for America’s gangsta rappers, nothing exceeds like XO.

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