Opinion: Snobbery cuts free-flowing Cristal

Talk about biting the hand that feeds. Roederer MD Frédéric Rouzaud's success in alienating one of its most vocal brand ambassadors, kick-starting a boycott and potentially killing off one of its most lucrative markets, could hardly be made up.

The story starts with an ill-advised interview with The Economist about hip-hop's espousal of Roederer's upmarket champagne Cristal. Rapper Jay-Z, with hip-hop artists such as Biggie Smalls, Kanye West, 50 Cent and Mos Def, has been promoting Cristal for more than a decade, with name-checks in songs such as Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life, and bottle-waving on stage and in videos.

Last year Agenda, a brand strategy agency that tracks mentions in Billboard's top 20 songs, ranked Cristal at eighth in the brand check game, ahead of Mercedes and Nike.

But when asked if the association could be detrimental, Rouzaud upset rappers by saying the company couldn't prevent people from buying Cristal, and that ‘Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have the business'. Ouch! Not only were these artists promoting the brand for free, they were also buying it by the crateload.

Jay-Z's PR agent Ron Berkowitz was quick off the mark with claims of racism, announcing that from now on Jay-Z's 40/40 sports lounges would serve Dom Perignon or Krug. An inept rebuttal has done nothing to stop the domino effect as Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Rihanna and rapper Lil' Kim join the boycott.

Hip-hop is a powerful promotional tool. The fact that most hip-hop artists perform under a single name rather than a group makes them ideal for personal endorsements that feed into fashion, ‘street language' and attitude, creating a lucrative market.

A range of brands have benefited. When Busta Rhymes and P Diddy penned Pass the Courvoisier Part II, sales apparently jumped 20 per cent. Cadillac credits rappers with turning round the reputation and sales of the Escalade 4x4. Following Run DMC's performance of My Adidas in the late 1980s, the firm signed them up to a $1.5m sponsorship deal, while Mercedes-Benz sponsors rap awards. And Moët Hennessy USA, producer of Dom Perignon, is on record as welcoming the association with rap.

Some in hip-hop have been associated with misogyny and violence, but I suspect that isn't the reason for Rouzaud's reticence. Was the comment racist? Jay-Z thinks so, though I believe Rouzaud would have reacted the same way to a clutch of WAGS throwing around his precious champagne. This snobbery could cost the company dear.
kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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