Ad volley opens champagne war

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THIS weekend the champagne house Moet & Chandon is launching the first advertising campaign in its 251-year history. It is an unusual move in the conservative champagne industry, and one that has forced other producers into an advertising battle to boost awareness of their own brands.

The champagne market, which has long been viewed as a barometer of the economic climate, is once again ``roaring'', according to Barry Thomson, Moet & Chandon's marketing manager. ``Although it is a bit of cliche that champagne sales reflect the feel-good factor, there is a rising tide. Our sales are up 22 per cent year on year, and the market overall has risen by 7 per cent,'' he says.

Advertising was once considered a slightly vulgar tactic in tbe rarefied world of champagne production. Most champagne houses had a ``do nothing'' marketing strategy, which proved successful, particularly in the 1980s - although some brands, such as Lanson and Mumm, did run television and cinema campaigns.

Mr Thomson says he has turned to advertising to maintain Moet's position as market leader. ``In the 1980s, it was all quantity and no quality. A lot of the cheaper champagnes went when the bubble burst. We are the market leader and, when we announced that we were intending to advertise, we fired the starting-gun for the other champagne houses to join in.''

Moet used to focus purely on PR and product placement but, after recent internal changes, the company's UK management now has greater control over the development of the brand. It has appointed the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty - famous for its Haagen-Dazs ads, which transformed ice-cream from a children's treat into a sex aid. BBH has created a pounds 1m campaign, which it says will run in quality newspapers and in magazines such as Hello!. The ads focus on the people involved in the production of Moet, and the style echoes its 19th-century ``house'' artist, Alphonse Mucha.

Mr Thomson says the advertisements are intended to reflect the core brand values in a witty and entertaining way.

Remy is putting pounds 1m behind its Charles Heidsieck marque. Its adverts also break in the press this week, and a television campaign may follow. The campaign will feature ads in French to which consumers are invited to put their own English translations. Paul Uhart, of advertising agency Euro RSCG, says: ``Because sales of champagne are growing very fast at the moment, we have the opportunity to establish the marque, which some consumers may not have heard about before.''

The problem for all champagne makers is to inform the public - which may not all be very discerning - that not all champagnes are the same, and that each brand, whether it is supermarket own-label or one of the ``grand'' marques, such as Charles Heidsieck, is made differently and tastes different.

Seagram, which handles Mumm and Perrier-Jouet, is spending pounds 500,000 on the brands - it is the first time Perrier-Jouet has been backed with an advertising budget. Geoff Parmiter, the marketing director, is trying to address this.

He says: ``The principal reason for advertising is that champagne is one of the fastest-growing categories in our drinks portfolio. People are drinking champagne again. If you go down to London's Atlantic Bar, you should just see the amount being drunk there. That's why we have increased the investment behind it.''

But he adds that the focus behind Perrier-Jouet's advertising ``is to emphasise the chardonnay grape content of the champagne. Chardonnay has become increasingly popular as people begin to know more about wine. We wanted to tell consumers about that point of difference and that P-J tastes like no other.''

The UK may not be about to return to the heady days of the 1980s, when champagne was drunk at the drop of a hat, or Harry Enfield's ``Loadsamoney'' character could claim that it was a posh alternative to lager. But champagne producers are confident that after a flat period, the market has begun to bubble again.

(Photograph omitted)