Cointreau: a brand history

4th June, 2015 by Richard Woodard

Few other brands have been so reliant on, yet so triumphant with, just one unique product. We discover how Cointreau has managed it.

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Cointreau has grown from humble roots in the 19th century to maintain prominence in today’s liqueurs sector

*This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

Twenty years ago, a UK mobile phone operator told us that “the future’s bright; the future’s orange”. It’s a slogan that could just as easily have been devised by Edouard Cointreau in 1870s France.

Originally confectioners, the Cointreau family had opened a distillery in the city of Angers in 1849, keen to use the area’s plentiful fruit to satisfy the growing demand for liqueurs. Their revival of “guignolet”, a cherry liqueur from the 17th century, kicked things off, and soon the family was making more than 50 different products.

Edouard was among the younger generation – young enough to have grown up at the distillery – and, when he returned from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he had an idea. Consumers, he noticed, were seduced by the exotic allure of orange, a scarce and sought-after fruit at the time. But, to his taste, the then popular curaçao liqueurs were too sweet, too weak and just not authentic enough.

Perfecting the Cointreau recipe took several years, but the formula has stayed the same ever since. Just as Edouard Cointreau did in 1875, current master distiller Bernadette Langlais combines four ingredients: alcohol, water, sugar and orange peel.

The trick is in the peel. It’s sourced from a variety of locations, at the moment including Brazil, Tunisia, Ghana, Senegal and Spain. There’s a mix of bitter (Citrus Aurentium) and sweet (Citrus Sinensis), with varieties including salustiana, cadaneras, navel and pera.

Category invention

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Edouard Cointreau unwittingly created an entirely new liqueurs category, Triple-Sec

Most are dried, but some sweet Spanish orange peels are macerated fresh in alcohol, giving candied, vanilla notes. “The bitter orange peels give the fresh aromas,” explains Langlais. “They’re zesty, green and very volatile. The sweet are the opposite – they give the juicy orange flavours. It’s a fresh and fruity combination.”

The result, Edouard Cointreau decided, should be called “Triple-Sec” – a reference to the triple concentration of orange flavour and the relative dryness of the liqueur. In so doing, he unwittingly created a new category – and yet you won’t see “Triple-Sec” on a Cointreau label today.

Beset by cheap copycat products, in the early 20th century the family decided to distinguish its product by supplanting Triple-Sec on the label with the Cointreau name. This early recognition of the value of branding hints at another key to the family’s success: a genius for marketing. This quality permeates Cointreau’s history, from the use of the Pierrot character (1898-1950s), to the very first cinema ad (produced by the Lumière Brothers in 1899) to the commissioning of great 20th century illustrators such as Jean Mercier and Charles Loupot.

Meanwhile, the classic lines of the square, amber-coloured bottle have adorned mobile bars and advertising posters through the decades, embodying the phrase “bottle hero” before it was even coined by modern-day marketeers.

The other cornerstone of the Cointreau success story is its presence in cocktails. Initially marketed as a digestif – a role which remained prominent in Cointreau marketing well into the 20th century – the brand was first referenced in a German cocktail book in the late 1800s.

But it was the pre- and post-Prohibition Stateside cocktail boom which secured its place on the back-bars of the world: Harry MacElhone’s White Lady recipe of 1919; Pat McGarry’s Side Car three years later; the birth of the Margarita in Acapulco in 1948; and the creation of the Cosmopolitan in 1980.

All feature Cointreau and all have helped to secure the brand’s long-term success: it has topped one million cases a year on a regular basis for the past few decades, bracketing the exit of the Cointreau family from the business in 1989’s merger of Cointreau & Cie with Rémy Martin to form Rémy Cointreau.

Modern success

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Central to Cointreau’s modern success is the brand’s ability to capitalise on cocktail culture

While Rémy Martin Cognac hogs the corporate headlines with its boom and bust in the Chinese market, and accounts for the lion’s share of the group’s revenues and profit, Cointreau has continued to post solid sales figures – without quite fully exploiting the current cocktail boom spreading throughout the world. For the new man in charge, CEO Panos Sarantopoulos, the key to changing this lies in capitalising on Cointreau’s heritage and position in cocktail history, while also elevating the brand from its status as a mere accompaniment to the spirit at the heart of the mix (to Cognac in a Side Car, to Tequila in a Margarita, etc).

“Broadly speaking, that’s the challenge,” he says. “The question is how you can move from being an ingredient to affirming the presence and personality of the house, to having the friends of the taste of Cointreau actually calling its name.”

Central to this process is simple signature serve the Cointreau Fizz (Cointreau Rickey in the US), a mix of Cointreau, lime juice and soda water.

“It’s both elegant and easy to make, with infinite possibilities to twist and infinite variations to take,” says Sarantopoulos. “And you can call it by name, rather than Margarita or Side Car.” Fizz, he reckons, works in “practically every market” and increases consumer interaction with the brand as people create their own personalised versions of the drink at pop-up bars around the world.

Cointreau is remarkable in the modern drinks industry as a business that, for the past 140 years, has been almost wholly reliant on selling one product and one product alone. Innovation isn’t entirely absent from its back-story: production spread to the US, Germany and Belgium after the Second World War, but was halted in the late 1950s for fear of diluting Cointreau’s French heritage. In 2012, Cointreau Noir was launched – a blend of Cointreau and Rémy Martin Cognac – and there’s also a specially formulated version for culinary use.

But even now, NPD is not at the heart of all things Cointreau. “[Cointreau Original] is where we progress and where the main growth is going to come from,” Sarantopoulos says.

“We are looking for a virtuous circle where both value and volume go hand-in-hand and they inch up together in unison. The idea is to find the way to bring Cointreau centre stage – this is what is going to really make a difference.”

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

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