Mumbai: Eric Vallat believes that cognac is a true luxury product, in the same league as high-end jewellery and designer bags. For the chief executive officer of the House of Rémy Martin, concepts like a members-only cognac club, specialist cognac boutiques and cognac pop-ups in high-end stores like Harrods are the way ahead. With a successful career in the luxury sector, having worked with some of the biggest fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior before joining Rémy Martin in 2014, he speaks about how he plans to take one of the world’s oldest cognac makers to millennials and women.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your rather unconventional journey from banking to fashion to a heritage brand like Rémy Martin and your takeaway from this breadth of experience.
I grew up in Paris in an old traditional family and as most people in my family, I went to business school and joined a bank because that was the thing to do. And it took me three years to realize that this was not what I wanted to do. And that’s when I made a radical move from banking to the luxury sector. What I wanted was to learn from real-life examples of where the client meets the product. And that’s how I went from being an investment banker to working in a Louis Vuitton store. And that was great learning for me and something I have carried with me. About four years ago I met the Rémy Martin family and I was very inspired by the vision, history, patrimony and know-how. All through my experience in the fashion industry, I have learnt the importance of knowing clients, understanding them and inspiring loyalty rather than just selling to a distributor. Historically, Rémy Martin is a specialist craft maker and we take these crafts and sell them to our distributors. Obviously the distributor is a key partner and we will always keep working very closely with them but also at the same time I have tried to infuse this with a client-centric approach.
What are your strategies for India? You have been here for about seven years now. What trends have you seen in this time?
As far as India is concerned, I am much more excited about the future than the past. It is a new playground for us not only because of the number of people here but because it is a brown spirits drinking country. There is whisky in the north and brandies in the south. People have a sense of aged and crafted spirits, and that is perfect for us. Cognac has the taste that can match this brown spirits culture and every time we organize a tasting, we realize that people have quite an affinity for cognac. India is still small for us and we are growing steadily. The potential is fantastic here and notably so at the high end. We know that in India it is only the beginning of our story and it is going to be a long journey but we are not afraid of long journeys.
What are you doing to reach out to more people and increase awareness about cognac in India and internationally?
Well it is hard to run campaigns in India but we work within the government regulations and instead of pushing quantities, we are more value-driven and personalized in our approach. What we need to do is develop emotional and image-driven awareness. We are doing more tastings and masterclasses here in India because we have realized that every time someone tastes the product, they become loyal to it. So education and tasting is key, especially in a market where communication is by essence and law limited. We also offer trips to Cognac for our special clients—this is really the best way to understand who we are, by going back to where it all started over 300 years ago.
While working with an aged cognac like Louis XIII, there is an overarching sense of time. How does that affect your strategy?
At Rémy Martin, time is a very different concept and that is why it is very important to be family-owned because then you can think in terms of generations and about the transmission of knowledge. I will probably never see today’s eaux-de-vie spirits turn into cognac and it will be for the next generation of managers, cellar masters to experience this product. The eaux-de-vie are aged in special barrels which are from trees that are a hundred years old. These barrels are aged for a hundred years and then the spirit inside them is aged up to another hundred years. Then if they are good enough, they are picked for Louis XIII cognac. In terms of Louis XIII cognac, we think in terms of centuries. It takes about four generations of cellar masters to craft a decanter of Louis XIII cognac. While doing a film for Louis XIII, I realized that it is the first time in my life that I am making business plans for the next hundred years. Of course it is not mathematical but more about gut feeling and vision. And what makes it easy is that our shareholders themselves are not preoccupied with the market value of the company. Instead, what they think about is their children and grandchildren, and what they want them to inherit.
The film that you made for Louis XIII cognac is quite unique in its scope and ethos. Tell us about its making.
As you know the century is the unit for Louis XIII and we made a film, 100 Years: The Movie You Will Never See, written by and starring John Malkovich and directed by Robert Rodriguez. It is a film that is not coming soon and none of us will be around to see it. I haven’t seen it and even John Malkovich hasn’t seen it, and the director is the only one who has seen it and he is very frustrated that no one else will. Slated to release in 2115, this film is now in our cellars along with a bottle of Louis XIII in a special vault designed by renowned safe makers Fichet-Bauche which is timed to open after the century is up. We invited a bunch of celebrities for the non-premiere. And we have invited their descendants for the grand premiere in 2115. Some of our guests have actually put this invitation down in their last will.
Do you plan a follow-up to the pop-up boutiques and members-only cognac clubs in non-Western markets?
We do indeed. To get window space at Harrods, one of the world’s premier luxury department stores, was a first for the whole wine and spirits industry. We have also opened a cognac boutique in a shopping mall in China next to high-end brands like Berluti, Fendi and Louis Vuitton on the men’s luxury floor. What we are trying to say is that our clients are those of Louis Vuitton and Fendi. We are resonating beyond cognacs and it is a daring move as we are a boutique on a floor which is not dedicated to wine and spirits just like we are in the jewellery section in Harrods. With cognac and especially with a brand like Louis XIII, we want to move beyond spirits and be regarded as a true luxury icon.
How do you break the notion of cognac as a drink preferred by older males and reach out to millennials and women?
We launched a campaign two years ago which targets millennials and talks about how real success does not lie in one path alone but is about fulfilling yourself across a variety of your talents. This definitely resonates with millennials who don’t want to be pigeonholed. And that is our approach to cognac as well. Rémy Martin VSOP is a very versatile product and it can be an aperitif or a stylish cocktail in a bar. It fits right in with the global trend of crafted cocktails and can reach out to both millennials as well as women. Apart from having a lot of women in our company’s senior management who plan strategy for as well as drink cognac, we also have a fair number of female clients. At our tasting in Mumbai, we had one all-woman table and they had especially registered themselves as a group for the tasting. The other tables had an equal number of women as well. The taste of cognac is very refined, with well-aged and subtle flavours which go beyond gender and that is what true luxury is all about. The Louis XIII miniature almost looks like a perfume bottle and we call it the fragrance of time. In fact, I know of some people who even use it as a perfume.
How do you make cognac a more fun experience and take it away from the gentlemen’s clubs and cigar rooms?
I think this idea of cognac as a serious drink is a cultural notion that is prevalent in France, Europe and India. However, this is not the case in the US where the cognac drinker is 25 years old, aspirational and drinks it in a nightclub. Similarly, in nightclubs in China, there are cognac bottles everywhere and in fact they are more popular than champagne and whiskies. It is really all about perception. In India we are starting from scratch as cognac is a small business here but luxury is big and is growing at 25% a year. And it is this market that we want to tap into with our historically old forward-thinking brand.