Pass the Courvoisier

Back in 2002, an old brand was reborn, taking those that thought they controlled it completely by surprise. Pass the Courvoisier Part Two, by Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy had climbed the charts, and made a huge splash in the cognac manufacturer’s sales, according to Precedent:

“It is true, when Monsieur Busta Rhymes featured Courvoisier in his video, with the many attractive ladies, our sales jumped by 20 percent,” said Pierre Szersnovicz, a director at Courvoisier, one of cognac’s four leading distillers.

Napoleon’s drink of choice (according to legend) had now been chosen by rap royalty. And though it was wholly unexpected, Courvoisier embraced its newfound popularity among hip hop fans, working with Russell Simmons’ agency to “cement its premium cognacs among fashionable, hip, young urban adults,” and sponsoring R&B shows at trendy clubs in New York.

Fast forward four years, and witness another old brand take the opposite tack on a similar opportunity. In a 2006 piece in The Economist, the managing director of Roederer, which makes Cristal champagne, was asked to comment on the rap world’s affinity for his product, and “whether an association between Cristal and the bling lifestyle could actually hurt the brand.” Frédéric Rouzaud’s reply is now infamous:

That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.

While most have been content to ask whether Jay-Z’s subsequent boycott had any real effect on North American sales—the answer appears to be “no”—there’s another question that may be more important: What would have happened if Roederer had embraced those “uninvited” brand ambassadors, rather than dismissing them?

Brand heritage should not be used as a bulwark against customer-centric change. Instead, substantive change in response to customer opinion should become part of a brand’s heritage, a legacy of action that is more important than ever before in the age of social. Because customers will define your brand with or without you. You can choose to actively partner with them in this endeavor, or you can choose to pretend this isn’t happening—or you can choose to dismiss it.

It’s not really rebranding, then, that occurs when a company makes visible shifts to align more closely with its customers—it’s catching up. Take a look at MTV’s 2010 logo redesign, which stripped the words “Music Television” from the mark. The refresh reflects two realities that MTV needed to catch up to:

  1. Audiences had long ago decided that MTV had far more than music to offer them. Jersey Shore was the highest rated MTV show in 2010, and MTV continues to expand its reality show offerings while minimizing its portfolio of music-related programming
  2. Television was only one touchpoint where the audience was interacting with the MTV brand, and was diminishing in importance relative to web and social

Here’s a classic example: Kleenex tissue. The product was originally marketed to women for use in makeup removal. Professor Michael Roberto tells us the rest of the story:

Several years after the launch, Kimberly-Clark’s head researcher began using the tissues to blow his nose due to hay fever. He wanted the marketing folks to advertise the product for this use as well. They resisted at first. Around this same time, many customers also were using the Kleenex tissue in place of their handkerchiefs. Kimberly Clark learned about this unexpected customer behavior. Finally, in 1930, Kimberly Clark ran two ads at the same time. One focused on blowing your nose, while the other emphasized make-up removal. They evaluated customer response. More readers responded that they used the tissue to blow their nose. Ad campaigns changed, sales took off, and the rest is history.

Companies that build customers into the fabric of their brands don’t have to justify or explain away the moves they make. When guided by customer-centricity, any moves that aren’t in the best interests of customers are off-brand and unsupportable. The question then becomes: What are we doing to live the brand our customers are defining for us?