In the late ’90s, champagne suddenly started showing up in rap videos: Biggie Smalls was seen popping open bottles on a yacht surrounded by scantily clad babes, Snoop Dogg rapped about drinking Moët while pimping at a stoplight, Jay-Z explained the proper pronunciation of Cristal before hitting up a club. The old champagne houses were perplexed. Overnight, the distinguished French beverage once reserved for respectable family gatherings had been transformed into a symbol of street cred, sex, and new money. “What can we do?” asked the managing director of Louis Roederer, the company that makes Cristal, when The Economist asked him in 2006 what he thought of his champagne being consumed by rappers. “We can’t forbid people from buying it.” (These comments offended Jay-Z so much that he publicly boycotted Cristal and last month purchased a competing champagne company, Armand de Brignac.)
Unfortunately for Cristal’s stuffy owners, there was no turning back: Champagne had found its way into American pop culture. And some brands, like Domaine Chandon, wanted to capitalize on their product’s newfound relevance and make inroads with a new generation of consumers. “At Chandon, we’re a bit obsessed with millennials,” confesses Cristian Yanez, VP of Estate and Wines at Moet Hennessy USA, Chandon’s parent company. “They’re all we talk about. If we don’t win with the millennial consumers, we can’t possibly have a healthy brand over the next 25 years.” Over the last decade, Chandon has carefully studied the under-35 set, tweaking the flavor of the wine to appeal to millennial taste buds and tailoring marketing strategies to pique millennial interests.
Chandon is not technically champagne, since it is not produced in the Champagne region in France but in Napa Valley, California. (French authorities will hunt down and sue anyone who dares to use the word “champagne” to describe a sparkling wine made elsewhere.) Nonetheless, Chandon has a prestigious lineage. Forty-one years ago, the owners of the venerable French champagne brand Moët & Chandon decided to set up an outpost in the United States, and called it Domaine Chandon. Claude Moët, who founded the company in 1743, was famous for being a pre-modern marketing genius. He managed to convinced the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, that champagne was the only wine that had the power to make women more–rather than less–beautiful. His champagne house proceeded to supply the French royal courts for centuries.
Today, however, Chandon is keen to distance itself from its parent company. “At this point, our connection with our French heritage is not something we play up in front of the consumer,” Yanez says. “We were born and raised in Napa. We’re proud to be a young American brand.” This effort to stay local and approachable seems to be working. While Chandon’s sparkling wines don’t earn the highest scores among wine critics, consumers are snapping the bottles up. It is among the largest sparkling wine producers in the United States, making over 650,000 cases a year, putting it leaps and bounds ahead of its biggest competitor, Mumm Napa, which produces 200,000 cases a year of sparkling wines of similar quality.
By distinguishing itself from its aristocratic French roots, Chandon has been able to reimagine how sparkling wine can be consumed–and by whom. Champagne has always been expensive, so for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be rap stars or royalty it is generally reserved for rare and important occasions. Wine historian Emily Kate tells me that from it’s earliest beginnings, champagne was advertised as something to be purchased for holidays, weddings, or political victories. “Since regular people could not afford it for everyday meals, there was an attempt to connect it with special days,” she explains. “It was a way for regular people to feel like they were part of the nobility, if only for a brief moment.”
Sparkling wine, on the other hand, can be produced and sold inexpensively. Chandon’s makers see this an opportunity to appeal to a broader swath of the population, particularly to younger consumers who have smaller budgets. Chandon sells their bubbles at a lower cost than most champagne houses, pricing bottles between $17 and $25. Ryan Jenkins, a millennial expert, explains that approach works because millennials are not drawn to products that are expensive for their own sake, but seek out brands that can offer them unique experiences. “There’s a fine line between being exclusive and being selective,” he says. “Millennials want to feel like they are having an original, buzzworthy experience that isn’t necessarily tied to cost. They’ll buy a bottle of wine because they feel like the brand is telling a story they want to be part of.” Given that the wine industry is built on prestige, achieving this delicate balance can be difficult, but Chandon appears to be taking a respectable stab at it.
Chandon has crafted an elaborate game plan for capturing millennials–and pricing is just the start. To get the attention of their target audience, Chandon has given the classic champagne bottle a trendy makeover. Most champagne and sparkling wine companies design bottles that look much like they did two centuries ago, with simple labels emphasizing the manufacturer’s reputation and the quality of the juice inside. Chandon has opted for a more exciting look, wrapping bottles in colorful designs that stand out on the shelf. This year, for instance, Chandon put out three limited-edition bottles that are scrawled with the phrases “The Party Starts Here,” “Bring on the Fun,” and “I am the After Party.” (There were plans to include a fourth phrase, but the company’s lawyers thought it encouraged a little too much holiday boozing.) Yanez tells me that these designs cater to millennials in two ways: They offer an irreverent alternative to their parents’ boring champagne bottles, and they appeal to their desire for a unique experience by allowing them to pick a bottle that reflects their personality.
Chandon also carefully tailors its marketing strategy when promoting products. “If you know your millennial consumer, you know you can’t tell them what to do,” Yanez says. “Instead, we gently spread the word about our new offerings and let consumers feel like they are discovering the product for themselves.” Rather than advertising overtly, Chandon is very active on social media platforms where millennials spend their time, like Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube. This allows consumers to interact with Chandon directly, rather than simply taking in the brand’s messaging. “Millennials came out of the womb texting and tweeting,” says Jenkins. “They want to engage and make their voice heard, rather than be passive consumers.”
Chandon also partners with tastemakers that already have already gained traction among millennials. This year, it collaborated with the popular blog Glitter Guide and the trendy Brooklyn design company Flat Vernacular to share news about the limited-edition bottles, and in the past, it has worked with Jonathan Adler and Momofuku Milk Bar. According to Matt Wood, the Chandon estate director, this year’s marketing campaign worked almost too well: The limited-edition holiday bottles have been flying off the shelves so quickly that he had to reduce distribution to wine suppliers to keep enough bottles for customers visiting the Chandon winery in Napa.
Chandon’s obsession with the millennial market is unusual in the sparkling wine industry. Take Nicolas Feuillatte, the top selling champagne in France and the third most popular champagne in America, for example. Julie Campos, managing director of Nicolas Feuillatte, tells me that her company focuses on consumers who are over 35 and most other champagne houses target those who are even older than that. “Champagne is inherently expensive so it is a out of the range of the very young market,” Campos says. “It is strongly anchored into French culture that champagne is a must-have at celebrations once you are over the age of 35.” To target sophisticated 35-to-58-year-olds, Nicolas Feuillatte plays into notions of travel and exploration: Its most recent bottles featured little gold aeroplanes subtly floating across black packaging — a stark difference from the bright, glittery party-themed Chandon designs.
Nicolas Feuillatte, much like for other champagne consumers, also tries to appeal to the palates of older consumers who tend to prefer drier wines, like brut or demi-sec. Chandon, on the other hand, has developed flavor profiles that younger drinkers will enjoy. “Millennials have a preferred taste,” says Chandon’s Yanez. “We recognize that the younger consumer appreciates wines that are easier to drink and that are not too dry, so we develop products that appeal to them.” For instance, Chandon’s most recent creation, Delice, which will launch in the United States in 2015, is very sweet. However, Yanez tells me that people’s palates evolve even between the ages of 25 and 34, so Chandon also has drier options to appeal to the more mature end of the millennial spectrum. Campos says that the work that sparkling wine producers are doing to hook younger drinkers is a boon to champagne manufacturers. She hopes that millennials who experiment with sparkling wines now will be primed for drier, more expensive champagnes in a couple of years.
For the time being, Chandon has gotten millennials’ attention and is making the most of it. In fact, one of the company’s main goals is to encourage millennials to drink sparkling wine not just during the holidays, but all year around. Right now, 40% of Chandon wine is consumed over Christmas and New Year’s alone. Yanez says the goal is to ensure that Chandon continues to be connected to end-of-year partying and other seasons, as well. For the last five years, the brand has launched a summer marketing campaign, launching limited edition bottles with nautical and Forth of July motifs to encourage consumers to think of sparkling wine as a refreshing drink for hot days.
Yanez tells me that sometimes, all it takes is a simple visual prompt to put a familiar beverage in a slightly different context. “Any marketer will tell you that it is very difficult to change consumer behavior,” he says. “But with sparkling wine, we’ve found that a simple approach works best. I know it sounds a bit basic, but just giving people another excuse to drink a bottle of sparkling wine is sometimes all we need to do.”