INTERVIEW – FREDERIC CUMENAL: Making a statement
“standfirst”>As president of Champagne’s largest brand, Frédéric Cuménal knows how to spread the word about fizz. Charlotte Hey meets the man behind Moët & Chandon
As you would expect, the president of Champagnes at Moët Hennessy, Frédéric Cuménal, is an extremely polished and charming man; he is also very difficult to divert away from company message. His sense of professionalism and dedication to the Moët brand wouldn’t allow it, I suspect, as I sit opposite him, flanked by a couple of members of his PR team.
I have to admit it’s rare to have such a strong PR presence during an interview, but this is an indication of the way things are done at Moët HQ in Reims. In fact, come to think of it, on the number of occasions I have previously met Cuménal I have never been allowed to be alone with him. This fact gives me the sense that Moët is not just another Champagne house, which of course it is not. Here things are done differently. Everything, in fact, is done to a higher, international standard.
Corporate feel aside, Cuménal is a youthful and vibrant character. He gives the impression of approachability and a certain sense of camaraderie with his colleagues. One thing that does become very apparent as our interview progresses is his vision for his brands and for the image of Champagne as a whole. “At Moët & Chandon we are in a position of pioneering Champagne globally and we have a responsibility to the category,” Cuménal affirms. “Our size means that we can do great things, but at the same time there is the possibility we could also do things very badly. We need to have an active role to play in the future and the well-being of the region, which means that we are very much dedicated to doing the right thing.”
That has to be a very big responsibility for him as the head of the region’s largest producer and brand owner. “Yes,” he nods, “they are big shoes to fill, but that’s part of the job. That being said, while we have an important role to play in the welfare of the region and the Champagne category as a whole, when it comes to our own priorities it is always Moët & Chandon first and Champagne second.
“We are very fortunate to be involved in Champagne given that it is unique vis-à-vis the wine world, it being such a branded sector.
The concept of brand is the key in Champagne and its brand owners, in my opinion, do enjoy a much higher brand loyalty than in any other vinous category.”
There is no doubting the branded status of the Champagne category but does the importance of the brand sometimes get in the way of the wine itself with a company as large as his? “We are fortunate,” Cuménal replies, “in that we have access to excellent quality when it comes to supply of grapes and that quality is at the heart of all of our brands. It will always be that way. Our challenge when it comes to the consumer is that we have to keep the pressure up and retain the ability to revive and reinvent ourselves, while still retaining a true sense of our core values.”
He continues: “For me the secrets to success of a Champagne brand are quality and selectivity when it comes to product, added to the image and emotion that the brand engages in the mind of the consumer. Linked with those factors is the culture, heritage, the DNA of Champagne and the history.”
But doesn’t the brand and its value dominate the quality aspects of the product for many non-vintage Champagnes? “Never,” Cuménal retorts. “If you don’t have a quality product you cannot establish the brand. Quality is paramount, price is important but the two have to be kept in balance.”
That is true, but the past three consecutive years have seen average price increases of between 3-6% from many of Champagne’s leading brands, does that not mean that the Champenois are running the risk of pricing themselves out of the market?
“I don’t believe that Champagne is a pricey product,” he asserts, “I think it still represents value in comparison to other wines. The price issue comes to the fore when you see cheap labels being offered on deals. What this situation does is exacerbate one of the region’s core problems: that of not being truly homogeneous in terms of quality. However, I have to say that the average quality of Champagne is much better than it ever has been,” he adds.
Prior to his current position at Moët, Cuménal spent a number of years in the US, most recently heading up the Domaine Chandon California operation for LVMH. As he elaborates on his views about the luxury and aspirational values of Champagne the American marketing style shows through, especially when it comes to his views on the image and positioning of a Champagne brand.
“The category is not in itself a luxury category, only a few brands have managed to achieve luxury status, for example ‘DP’ is regarded as a Champagne, but it is really more of an icon. Moët & Chandon on the other hand tends, as far as consumer perception is concerned, to give access to status. Drinking it is a statement.
“It is all about the magic – the product has been conceived as being something to share with others, that makes it very different from any other drink. Drinking Champagne is all about sharing the emotion and the pleasure of the world that surrounds you at the point when you are drinking it. The luxury is the experience of now, when you drink Champagne, it’s beyond just the product you are consuming, it’s the entertainment.”
In early 2004, the LVMH Group announced the appointment of Frédéric Cuménal to the role of president of Champagnes at Moët Hennessy.
A graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, the Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales and Harvard Business School, Cuménal began his career in marketing and sales at Procter & Gamble, before going on to Lesieur and then Mars.
He joined LVMH in 1995 as Moët & Chandon manager for Europe, and was managing director at Moët Hennessy Europe from 1996 to 1999. In September 1999, he was appointed president and CEO of Domaine Chandon California, a wine estate founded by Moët & Chandon in the US.
For Cuménal the secret of Champagne branding is the aspiration it inspires in the consumer. It’s all about giving the consumer access to a slightly different world. He elaborates: “It’s not just about the money you earn, but belonging to a group of like-minded people. People who have the same interests, likes, dislikes and aspirations as you – art, fashion, etc. The feel of the shared experience is a very modern answer. You have to admit that the feeling of drinking a glass of Champagne is very different
to that when you are drinking anything else. It’s a different atmosphere; a way of living; a grandeur and splendour that is very much part of the Moët & Chandon lifestyle image. All of which is balanced by the wine’s qualities and values. You can’t have one without the other to my mind.”
There is no doubt that Moët & Chandon has played an important role in helping to push the aspirational values of the Champagne category, but for Cuménal, it has taken a long time for Champagne to arrive at its current status. “To retain that position the category gatekeepers, the houses and the producers, are going to have to work very hard in the future,” he says.
“We now operate in a global market and the world is becoming more and more complex when it comes to tuning into consumer needs, wants and desires. Therefore it is imperative for any brand and for the category itself to maintain good levels of education about our products across the different markets.”
And here Cuménal’s pragmatism and commerciality show through: “There is no way that we are going to be successful by just putting the bottle on the table. The image building involves a slightly more complex process. We are now in the business of offering consumers the key to what they want access to, that is a different lifestyle, a certain sophistication.” Or polish, perhaps? Whatever it is, Cuménal is certain that he has a grip on where Champagne is going and his company’s performance figures are testament to the fact.
© db October 2007