Courvoisier: a brand history

14th May, 2015 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

It may be the original Napoleon brandy, but Courvoisier Cognac has managed to establish a thoroughly modern appeal. Here’s how it achieved its world-leading status.

Courvoisier-a-brand-history

With roots dating back to the early 19th Century, Courvoisier has undergone extensive metamorphoses over the past 200 years

*This feature was originally published in the December 2014 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

Cognac has always been an aspirational spirit in the way it is packaged, priced and promoted, particularly when you get beyond VSOP. This was distilled into just seven words in 2004 in a UK advert for Courvoisier XO: “Don’t just stand there drooling. Get rich”.

With more than a nod to Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, the ad made no mention of Napoleon. The French emperor has been the brand’s inspiration since he visited the cellars of Emmanuel Courvoisier and Louis Gallois in 1811, two years after they had set up as wine and spirits merchants in the Parisian suburb of Bercy. According to company folklore he liked the Cognac so much he took some with him on exile after his defeat at Waterloo.

“It’s one of the most beautiful and moving stories,” says Francois Balzini, VP marketing, Europe, Middle East & Africa, for brand-owner Beam Suntory. “When Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in the mid-Atlantic in 1815, he took his boat to La Rochelle and on the way, stopped at Jarnac and picked up a few barrels. It was his desert island spirit.”

The business moved from Bercy to Jarnac in 1828, and before long the new generation were doing well enough to build a grand château on the banks of the Charente that is still Courvoisier’s HQ. Yet it was only in 1909, when the firm was bought by the Anglo-French Simon family, that Courvoisier really began to dine out on Napoleon.

His silhouette was displayed on bottles, the necks of which were uniquely stretched to create the so-called Josephine shape in 1951. By then “the brandy of Napoleon” was stamped on every advert. These often featured a dashing French cavalry officer, a pair of brandy balloons and a plotline from Mills & Boon.

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Napoleon has long-inspired the brand, which is now going back to its Parisian roots

Emperor spirit

“Chinese people don’t refer to Courvoisier as such, they call it Napoleon,” says Balzini on the emperor’s relevance today. “In Europe it’s nice to know. It’s not fundamental, but it’s part of the heritage, while in America they don’t really understand it.” In the early 20th century, Courvoisier turned the name Napoleon into a grade of Cognac between VSOP and XO. “It hits the sweet spot that’s old enough, but not too old,” Balzini explains. “Some people get a bit turned off by XO because it’s too rich on the nose with too much chocolate, caramel and very ripe fruit, whereas VS is a bit young.”

Sadly Napoleon brandy became a debased, meaningless term thanks to the brand’s rivals, and Courvoisier, which had been through a succession of owners, needed rejuvenating by the end of the 1990s, as did the entire category. In the States the longed-for boost came from rap artists and their music videos, particularly Busta Rhymes who released Pass the Courvoisier in 2001. “Courvoisier didn’t reach out to him,” Balzini insists. “He basically selected the brand and made it a cool product to drink.”

The effect was electrifying. “Sales of Courvoisier, and Cognac in general, exploded in North America,” says Balzini. The US is the brand’s biggest market with case sales of 380,000 in 2013 (IWSR), followed by duty free on 350,000 and the UK on 330,000. “I’m over simplifying,” he continues, “but in the UK Cognac is consumed by older gentlemen who drink it straight in their leather armchairs listening to good music. In the US it’s a younger, affluent, often African-American market that drinks it as a group, going out and celebrating and often in cocktails.”

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Up against stiff competition, the brand remains one of the world’s top four Cognac houses

Hip hop credentials

Yet Busta Rhymes’ contribution goes unrecorded on the Courvoisier website, and Balzini sounds ambivalent. “It’s what happens when you don’t communicate very clearly what you are as a brand,” he says, mentioning the salutary lesson of Lacoste. “At the end of the 1990s it was adopted by suburban kids who trashed the brand.” The sportswear label eventually recovered, as did Burberry after it stopped making baseball hats and had the infamous “Vauxhall Chavalier” – a car covered with an iconic Burberry checked pattern paintjob – crushed in 2005.

In 2011 the brand launched Courvoisier Rose, a Cognac-red wine hybrid at 18% abv, and followed with the Moscato-based Courvoiser Gold in 2012. Asked if they had worked, Balzini is admirably frank. “The short answer’s no, and it’s not a surprise they haven’t been successful to be honest.” He calls the innovation “strategically correct, but very hard to execute and very costly.” In future the focus will be firmly on the mother brand.

“We’re going to give the brand what it deserves and we’re going to share with consumers how deep and beautiful Courvoisier’s heritage is,” he explains. “Hopefully it will isolate us from consumers taking ownership of the brand, or always being impacted by global regulations.” This last point being a reference to the Chinese government crackdown on conspicuous consumption which has hit Courvoisier, though not nearly as hard as Rémy Martin among ‘the big four’ Cognacs.

Balzini spells out his vision: “Courvoisier is going to have a complete face-lift next summer and we’re going to reconnect the brand to its roots.” Those roots are not so much in Cognac as in Paris. “The brand peaked at the time of Paris’ Golden Age from 1870-1910,” he continues. “It became the drink of choice in all the Royal Courts of Europe, and it was selected as the official Cognac of Napoleon III during a very celebratory time. Paris was the place to be in Europe, and Courvoisier was right there. So much so that Courvoisier was the Cognac used to toast the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. I mean, how cool is that.”

With global sales of 1.28 million cases in 2013 (IWSR), down 3.5% on 2012, Courvoisier could do with another boost. The re-launch was already scheduled when Suntory sealed its US$16 billion bid for Beam earlier this year. The new owners “were amazed by our plans to reignite the brand’s spectacular heritage,” says Balzini. “There will be new packaging, a new campaign and new innovation.” The latter will include a limited edition, Napoleon’s Last Luxury, to celebrate the forthcoming bicentenary of his exile. It looks like 2015 will be a busy year for Courvoisier.

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Courvoisier’s brand history.

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