The big interview: Laurent Boillot, Hennessy CEO
Having spent two years in lockdowns in Cognac, Hennessy CEO Laurent Boillot has immersed himself in the brand. Now, thanks to tie-ups with Harrods and the NBA, he is taking the company’s message global.
*This feature was originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Spirits Business
“It’s high pressure, but it’s great pressure,” says Laurent Boillot, CEO of Hennessy Cognac, about being at the top of the category. In June, Hennessy was given the prestigious title of Cognac Brand Champion in The Brand Champions 2022 annual report. Owned by Moët Hennessy, the wine‐and‐spirits arm of LVMH, the brand sits several million cases ahead of its closest Cognac competitors.
“We have been able to put ourselves into the number‐one position of the spirits business, and it’s about staying there,” Boillot says. “If we do our job well, we can stay number one, and probably even increase the gap between us and the others. And the competition is not only Cognac, it’s all wine and spirits; the whole spirits industry.”
Boillot became Hennessy CEO in January 2020, and admittedly “knew nothing about the Cognac industry”. His previous positions saw him gain a wealth of business experience in the 12 years he worked for Unilever, before he joined LVMH in 2002. At first, he oversaw the transformation of designer brand Guerlain, working as marketing director, then chairman and CEO from 2007. As of 2014, Boillot was also executive vice‐ president of Make Up For Ever.
With the pandemic taking hold just a few months into Boillot’s move to Hennessy, the CEO found himself grounded in the region for nearly two years. But ever the optimist, Boillot reflects on this time as an invaluable period that allowed him to build his knowledge of the category.
“Instead of travelling the whole world – because Hennessy is present in more than 160 countries – my home base for almost two years has been Cognac,” he explains. “I realised that something so important to us is the viticulture; we are certain we can create the best Cognac, coming from the best soils, coming from the best winegrowers.”
The pandemic caused a slight dip in sales for Hennessy in 2020, as volume sales went from more than 8 million cases in 2019 to 7.8m in 2020. However, the brand bounced back stronger than ever in 2021, and reported 9.2% volume growth to hit 8.6m cases.
“When the wind is under you, you want to take the wind,” Boillot says. “We are pushing as much as we can. We know there are many clouds coming – the health issue is still there, the logistics issue is there, inflation, which is huge, and all the signs show there will probably be a recession some day. But you don’t decide that day, you don’t know what’s going to happen, or the magnitude; so more than ever, it’s about preparing to be ready in case there is a crisis. If there is, we’ll face it like before. But for the moment, it’s full speed ahead.”
Hennessy has long taken pride in its strong marketing initiatives and partnerships. To tap into the brand’s current momentum further, the Cognac house opened a permanent retail shop in luxury London department store Harrods in early June.
“The idea was to get closer to consumers, and also to better serve them,” says Boillot about when the idea was conjured. “That brought me to pay a visit to Michael Ward [managing director at Harrods] – it should have been a physical visit but it was a Zoom visit in 2020 – and I asked Michael, why do you not have a Hennessy space in the greatest department store in the world, to try and develop the category in your store?”
Two years later, and the vision became reality as the Hennessy Boutique took its place on the lower ground floor of the store, in London’s Knightsbridge. The space is dedicated to the rarest Hennessy Cognacs, such as Hennessy Paradis.
Harrods’ clientele is the ideal customer for such a boutique, Boillot and Board believe, with consumers flocking from around the world to shop there. Harrods’ customers seek “to get the best of the best – not only products, but services”, notes Boillot. “This is precisely why we wanted to focus more on the top range of our portfolio, and particularly Paradis, one of the finest products of the maison. It’s one of the rarest because of the blend; this is made of eaux‐ de‐vie that can be a century old. We wanted to bring the rarest blends to the consumer.”
The opening of the shop coincided with a special bottling made exclusively for Harrods. The ‘one‐of‐a‐kind’ Cognac comprised some of Hennessy’s ‘rarest eaux‐ de‐vie’, presented in a limited edition Dame Jeanne that was created in collaboration with artist Nelly Saunier.
Shoppers can also make use of the Hennessy Hands personalisation service. Boldly coloured leather bottle tags can be embossed while shoppers wait at the boutique. This is offered to add an extra element of uniqueness to purchases and to the overall shopping experience.“It’s not only about the product but services, and this is precisely why we wanted to focus more on the high‐end range of our portfolio, and particularly Paradis,” says Boillot.
Hennessy’s ongoing partnership with the National Basketball Association (NBA) has also been important to aiding the brand’s growth. “It’s not your usual sponsorship story,” insists Boillot. Hennessy became the first global spirits partner of the NBA in February 2021, when it signed a multi‐year agreement to be the ‘official spirit of the NBA’. The collaboration, which built on the North American deal announced in February 2020, comprises a range of consumer activations worldwide, and localised content.
“The reason why we selected the NBA and basketball is I don’t think there is another sport that is offering something that is necessary for us,” explains Boillot. “Most sports are about what is happening on the court, on the field, the activity in the arena. Basketball has such excitement in the game, but also great excitement off court; it’s the culture of the NBA. There are a billion fans of NBA on the planet, and they are global – 200m fans are Chinese citizens, fans in America, the UK. Understand, basketball is the second‐largest sport in the UK.”
Last year, Hennessy launched a campaign starring American basketball player Russell Westbrook, called ‘Make Moves That Start Movements’. The creative push stars Westbrook alongside artist Victor Solomon, and Alex Taylor, founder of women’s basketball community group Hoop York City. The film depicts the journey of a basketball, and looked at communities that are forwarding the culture of the game.
Spots like this help Hennessy elevate its name among NBA fans, and recruit new drinkers, Boillot says. “What I sense, is when you speak about the NBA fans, it is a sport that is able to bring together so many people from different positions; under‐privileged, different types of backgrounds and ethnicities,” Boillot says.
But the relationship with the basketball league extends much further than this. Hennessy and the NBA have taken their influence into local communities worldwide as part of the ‘Hennessy in the Paint’ initiative, which combines art and sport, reviving neglected basketball courts in underprivileged areas.
“Social elements are also part of what Hennessy has always done; it’s about giving back,” Boillot says. “The programme started in 2021 and is developing fast. We are in six countries so far, and by the end of the year we will have restored 15 courts worldwide, in Canada, South Africa and more, we will go everywhere. Each time we ask a local artist to design the court with us, so it’s a way to bond with the culture, and to give the country the opportunity to express itself.”
Most recently, Hennessy enhanced the digital aspect of its Make Moves That Start Movements campaign with an immersive online space, called Hennessy House of Moves. The digital ‘house’, features three virtual floors, where users can access a performance by American rapper Gunna, and NBA‐themed Hennessy cocktails.
The power of digital has become ubiquitous over the past two years. Hennessy harnessed its digital prowess further this year with the launch of its first NFTs via online marketplace Blockbar. The first and last bottles of Hennessy 8 Cognac, of which 250 numbered bottles were released in 2017, were made available as NFTs, priced at 70.47 ethereum (US$226,450).
NFTs are sparking widespread debate in the spirits industry; but for Boillot, their purpose is simple: to attract new drinkers to discover Hennessy, offer traceability and proof of ownership.
“Personally, my wake‐up call [to NFTs] was more than a year ago. I said to the company, we have to look at it, we have to understand it, we have to get into it and make our own way on this one,” Boillot says. “There are elements we are not interested in, and some elements we are interested in.”
Boillot makes it crystal clear the company is not interested in launching NFTs as a cryptocurrency investment. “What we are interested in is using NFTs as an entry door to get to our consumers or to new consumers,” he explains. “Wherever our consumer is, we have to go there to connect with them, engage with them. What’s really important to us is to use the digital world to bring those people into the regular world. That’s what I’m looking at. So launching an NFT, why not? But under the condition that it’s a key to get to the consumers and to bring them to the real world, because the real world is fantastic.”
Boillot says he takes the brand’s mission ‘to preserve, to enrich and to transmit’ “very seriously”. Improving Hennessy’s sustainability is an imperative aspect of this pledge, and something Boillot and his team plan to continue working on. Parent company Moët Hennessy has set ambitious goals to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in absolute value by 2030 compared with 2019, as part of its sustainability programme, Living Soils Living Together.
Hennessy and its winegrowers have close to 80,000 hectares of vineyards altogether, Boillot says, and there is still room to grow more. “We plant at a decent pace. We encourage the winegrowers to plant more, not too much, just to grow in the long term,” he notes.
“I don’t want to look like one of those ‘greenwashers’,” he continues. “We take sustainability very seriously for a simple reason: if we don’t protect the soil that is giving the eaux‐de‐vie, if we don’t protect the forest that is giving the oak and the barrels to make the eaux‐de‐vie, there is no future for our brand. So we do it selfishly to protect ourselves, but also with a sense of altruism because as a big company we believe that it is also our duty to do our share for the planet. We have a big programme about what viticulture should be and what it should look like in years to come.”
For Boillot, regardless of short‐term pivots as challenges arise, the future success of Hennessy will largely depend on the company’s long‐term strategies.
“I’m always looking at the long‐term future, especially when it comes to eaux‐de‐vie, vineyards, the winegrowers,” Boillot insists. “We are still buying as much eaux‐de‐vie as we can; we are still building cellars in Cognac because we believe whatever the crisis, we must plan for another 10, 20, 30, 50 years. The company has been there for 260 years and we believe it will be there for centuries to come.”
I ask Boillot what his views are on the future of Cognac. “G‐r‐e‐a‐t, great,” Boillot laughs. With sales of Cognac up by 31% in 2021, reaching €3.6 billion (US$4.1bn), according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, he is understandably upbeat about the category’s outlook, and there is much to look forward to in the years to come.