Old Grand Marnier goes from hip-op to hip-hop

Maker of 150-year-old liqueur eyes urban black Americans to bling in the New Year

At this time of year, many are tempted to dust down that old bottle of Grand Marnier and enjoy a Christmas tipple. But the 150-year-old liqueur is shedding its fusty smoking jacket and slipping into something a lot more "bling bling".

Société des Produits Marnier-Lapostolle, the French, family-controlled producer of the orange-tinged blend of cognac, has set its sights on young, urban black Americans with its first new Grand Marnier variant since 1977.

Navan, a mix of French cognacs and natural black vanilla from Madagascar, is the latest entrant into a buoyant US cognac market that's tripled in size in the past 10 years, despite the supposed anti-French backlash because they refused to support the Iraq war.

The likes of Hennessy and Courvoisier have featured heavily in the music videos and lyrics of leading rap luminaries such as Busta Rhymes, Nas and P Diddy. Grand Marnier hopes Navan, backed with a $10 million (£5.2 million) marketing budget and priced unashamedly in the super-luxury bracket at around $40 a bottle, will forge a similarly lucrative association.

Certainly, the sleek and minimalist-style bottle represents a marked departure for a spirits company more readily associated with mature drinkers waiting for a hip-op than the glitzy, jewellery drenched world of hip-hop.

That Grand Marnier has so willingly embraced this new spirit of adventure has much to do with the arrival of Claude de Jouvencel, the first chief operating officer appointed from outside the Marnier-Lapostolle dynasty,

Mr de Jouvencel, 59, has added much-needed corporate clout to a family business thanks to top-level marketing and board experience at Pernod Ricard and, later, the Diageo-owned United Distillers.

"To allow an outsider the freedom to change the company was a brave decision but there was a distinct lack of 'get up and go' when I arrived," he admitted. "They're very passionate about the brand and that's why I joined. It's in their blood. There's a huge emotional connection. But sometimes it's good to be tapped on the shoulder and shown an alternative approach."

When Mr de Jouvencel took the helm in 1996, Grand Marnier was treading water in an increasingly consolidated global spirits market. Sales were flat and the brand was struggling to throw off its cumbersome reputation as solely a Christmas time dinner tipple.

The challenge was not only financial but cultural. "It was strange going from a company with thousands of people and layers of management to an enterprise where there's little bureaucracy but you need to know the name of everyone's wife."

Since Mr de Jouvencel arrived, global sales have grown to more than 1.2 million cases, up a fifth, and volume growth is creeping up at 2.5 per cent per annum. It is the world leader in international "premium" liqueurs, with estimated retail sales worth $375m.

"It's a very well-established brand. But at times it was like turning around a huge barge on the Thames," saidMr De Jouvencel. "It's been on a pedestal for too long. The brand is known for quality and heritage, and it's iconic in the sense that everyone recognises it. But there have not been enough compelling reasons for consumers to pull it off the shelf."

Navan is armed with the task of doing just this in the US, Grand Marnier's biggest market worth more than 500,000 cases per annum.

"North America is very exciting as there's a lot happening with premium and super-premium spirits. We've grown the business by 150,000 cases in the last year by introducing new ways of drinking it," he said. These include offering Grand Marnier in Martini glasses rather than brandy glasses, and increased use in cocktails.

"The African-American community are very brand conscious and, although awareness of Grand Marnier was high, we felt there was a real opportunity for Navan in the US," added Mr De Jouvencel

Nonetheless, the new arrival is destined to play second fiddle to the core Cordon Rouge brand in Grand Marnier's strategic markets. Mr de Jouvencel is particularly animated by the opportunities, albeit embryonic, in the Far East.

"In 10 years, Asia and Russia will be the big markets, so we need to be there now," he commented. "The economies and trends are moving at an astonishing rate - the energy, buzz and desire to grow is very impressive. They're no longer considered merely as jam-tomorrow deals."

The UK is another exciting prospect. Britain boasts 11 per cent of the world's liqueur consumption, yet Grand Marnier sales in this country have remained around the modest 25,000-cases mark. Navan is earmarked for these shores late next year, with plans for a similar introduction in France and the rest of Europe.

"It's an important market for us, yet we haven't really had the success that we'd like," said Mr De Jouvencel. "We've made a lot of headway in the cocktail culture but it's a long haul. The UK is a vital market for us and we really need to be shooting where the ducks are flying."

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