Posted by: Burth Helm on October 25, 2006
Ok, existential question time. Wait, don’t leave! Come back! It’s an existential question about rap music and champagne, ok?
Here’s it is: What makes a brand “real”?
Like a lot of others out there, my curiosity was piqued by a mysterious product placement for a champagne in the latest Jay-Z music video “Show Me What You Got.” After a full day of cavorting around Monaco, Jay-z is presented with an ornate gold bottle in a silver briefcase:
Recognize that brand? Me neither. In fact, no one did. But two days after the video’s release, a press release hit the wire from a brand called “Armand de Brignac” claiming it was the bottle. The release went on to describe Armand de Brignac as an “ultra-luxury product in the high-end champagne category,” that was “making its North American debut this year, after enjoying success as a premium, high-end brand in France.” Sound a little too convenient? A lot of bloggers thought so (see Idolator, Gawker, and some good investigative work on hiphopgame.com). Jay-z, who has long been known for sipping nothing but Cristal, had recently started boycotting that brand. They speculated that perhaps Jay-z was launching his own brand of champagne. They pointed out that the Armand De Brignac website had only existed since last Saturday, and also noted that the Armand De Brignac bottle appeared to be just a prettied-up version of another, much cheaper Champagne called Antique Gold.
Curious myself, I shot an email to the email address at the bottom of the press release.
I got this back:
Thank you for your interest in Armand de Brignac. Armand is a Champagne of unmatched quality and is bottled and packaged by hand in extremely limited quantities to ensure preservation of the brand’s high standards.
Due to the limited supply and unprecedented demand for Armand, we would like to take the time to individually answer the many requests we have received for information about Armand de Brignac and its availability. Please be assured that we will personally respond to all serious inquiries.
Scott D. Cohen
Director of Marketing
480 Broome St.
New York, NY 10013
Looked like an auto-response to me. And dialing the number only got a voicemail. But what about that address listed? I decided to hop on the subway and head downtown.
That’s what I found. An unassuming building on a nice enough street in SoHo, with the call button for the 2nd floor reading “Sovereign Brands LLC.” I rang the buzzer for a solid few seconds. Nothing. Then a voice on the other end:
Voice: “Who is this?”
Me: “Burt Helm with BusinessWeek. Can you tell me about Armand De Brignac?”
Voice: “Everybody’s gone home already.”
Me: “Well, who are you?”
Voice: “Scott. (Pause). Hold on, I’m heading out, I’ll come downstairs and I’ll tell you about it.”
I met Scott, a friendly young guy in a black wool peacoat who’s about a year out of college. So I asked him, what’s the deal? Is this thing for real or not? He asked me that I not quote him directly. We talk for a bit and then he takes out his cell phone and puts me on the phone with his boss, Brett Berish, who runs Sovereign Brands LLC, who tells me essentially the same stuff, on the record.
So here’s what Berish told me: Armand de Brignac is real, to the extent that it’s a real bubbly wine, made by a real French champagne maker, Cattier, and in that it has been approved by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).
The brand itself is also, technically, an actual French brand of champagne.
But here’s where things get interesting. Armand de Brignac is a dormant brand. Cattier has owned it for some time, but the company hasn’t used it for anything in decades, according to Berish. To get approval from the CIVC to call it champagne, however, Berish says, Sovereign and Cattier needed to use an old, previously approved name. So the brand is not one that is currently “enjoying success as a premium, high-end brand in France,” as the press release might have you believe.
So this is, for all intents and purposes, a new brand of Champagne. Berish’s company, which also distributes niche brand 3 Vodka in the U.S., has been planning it with Cattier for the last four years. The bottle’s design is new, it’s a unique blend of grapes, and it will see its first commercial release in North America before Christmas of this year. This isn’t anything too radical in the high-end spirits market. In some ways it's similar to the way that Sidney Frank created the Grey Goose Vodka brand out of nothing, declaring the “World’s Best Tasting Vodka,” even though we’d never really heard of French vodka and even though it hadn’t, in fact, existed before 1997.
So how did it the bottle get into the Jay-z video? Berish maintains it was just good luck. Late last summer, after word got around that he was working on a champagne, Jay-z’s people asked if the company would send a sample bottle (Berish insisted they contacted him, not the other way around). Shortly afterward, Jay-z’s people called again to ask if he would send a case with the rapper on his trip to Europe. That was about a month and a half ago. Next thing his team knew, Berish says, the bottle was appearing almost once an hour in the Jay-z video on BET. So two days later they put out a press release announcing the brand to capitalize on the buzz.
I’m still a bit skeptical. These guys aren’t new to this game – their other brand, 3 Vodka, came with an endorsement from rapper Jermaine Dupri, who in 2004 became a partner and owner. Berish still insists it wasn’t planned, and that Jay-z has no stake. Still, he says, “Jay-z is exactly who we would have liked as a partner on this. Everyone already identifies him with luxury brands, and given his boycotting Cristal earlier, it works extremely well perfect…But it’s not like we just cooked this brand up to capitalize on that.” The placement has drummed up a lot of potential business, too. The company says its received over 500 “serious inquiries” since Jay-z’s video debuted on October 16.
What about what the internet sleuths uncovered? That the bottle looked an awful lot like another cheaper ($60) bottle of champagne, Antique Gold? And that the website only went up last Saturday? Antique Gold is, in fact, a brand of Champagne made by Cattier, and Berish told me that the same bottle was used for the basic design. The Champagne inside, he says, is very different. “Saying it’s the same champagne because it’s the same gold bottle is like saying that all champagne in a green bottle is the same. No one would say that about Moet Chandon and Dom Perignon.” And the website? After I got off the phone with Berish, Scott told me he put up the site himself. “With all the attention, it seemed like we needed something official, to let people know it’s real.”