RAISE YOUR GLASSES
Updated: May 12
Great marketing is invisible. Not the results – of course, a business wants visibility to connect with its customers – but the activity itself shouldn’t be noticed. We’re so tuned-in to brands and communications and media that most of the time it’s the campaign that gets remarked upon, even if the product stays on the shelf. But once in a while someone pulls a stroke that is so bold, so embracing, that we don’t know it’s happened, and just accept its premise as the norm. At some time over the Holiday Season millions of us will crack open a bottle of champagne to celebrate something. It may be a Bucks Fizz on Christmas morning or to bring in the New Year a week later. A bottle of bubbly - as much a part of the warp and weft of life as carving the turkey or singing Auld Lang Syne. Well, sorry to disappoint you – but it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, the fact that we think it so is testament to the genius (and I choose the word carefully) of Eugene Mercier, founder of the champagne house that still bears his name, and father of modern marketing promotion. Mercier wrote the rulebook. THINK BIG, THINK DEEP
Before Mercier started his business in 1858, champagne was, in today’s terms, a niche product, the preserve of the gentry and available in only the most select venues. But Eugene had other ideas; he wanted to reach as many people as possible because he saw an opportunity to build a mass market. All he needed was the capacity to deliver, and to give his customers a reason to buy. He solved the first problem by creating the world’s largest champagne cellars– 18km of tunnels carved into the chalk 33m beneath Epernay, the champagne region to the east of Paris. Such was the scale of the endeavour, he even built a 800m long rail link to the Paris-Strasbourg line to transport millions of cubic metres of chalk from the site.
When the work was finished, he used the service to transport visitors to the site, to see the results of six years labour. Mercier created one of Europe’s first commercial visitor attractions. But while receiving the great and the good at his cellars may have cemented his relationship with his existing customers, it wasn’t going to reach the masses. For that, Mercier had another, even grander design. In that first year of trading, he commissioned Monsieur Jolibois, one of the finest coopers in the wine trade, to make him a cask. There were two extraordinary things about the project: Dimensions: it was 6.2m long, 5.5m high, and had a capacity of 215,000 bottles. (You can still see it today, at L’Espace Mercier. It’s like a section of an Apollo rocket). Duration (quarterly-driven executives and investors had better be sitting down): from commission to completion, the cask took 23 years. It was unveiled in July 1881. And the question of everyone’s lips was ‘Why?’ Digging enough storage space for 18 million bottles of champagne was one thing, but taking 23 years to make a barrel that was big enough to house a family of four seemed, well, slightly mad. The answer came 8 years later. ROLL OUT THE BARREL
Mercier was playing a long game. While the cask proved to be an attraction at his headquarters, he had a much wider public in mind: the 1889 Paris Exhibition, a sort of World’s Fair and Expo rolled into one. There was, however, the slight problem of getting it there. When it was full, the cask weighed over 29 tons. It was enormous. Ever the one to turn a problem into an opportunity, Mercier morphed the transport challenge into an event. At the end of April 1889, a team of 24 oxen (with a support party of 18 horses) pulled a specially built cart with specially built wheels from Epernay to Paris. En route, they destroyed several houses, had to strengthen several bridges, and even removed part of the fortifications around the capital city. Mercier was on the front page of every newspaper, every day, for over a week. On the 7th May, the cask made its triumphant entrance into Paris. Hundreds of thousands turned out to cheer it on its way. During the show, its popularity was equalled by only one other exhibit - a tower built by an engineer called Eiffel. For the next 20 years, Mercier continued to build his mass market, and create the association between his brand and the celebration of achievement. He was giving his customers a reason to buy. ¶ He paid for (aka sponsored) the century’s largest hot air balloon which, during its lifetime, gave 20,000 people a flight over Paris while drinking his champagne. ¶ He commissioned the first-ever publicity film, called ‘From Grape to Glass’, which was made by the Lumier Brothers. ¶ In 1905, at the Liège Exhibition, Mercier built an arch of 15,000 bottles, representing the daily sales of the product. Nothing succeeds like success. ¶ Mercier sponsored Blériot in his first powered flights. The company was the first to advertise at the Tour de France, and to send out branded vehicles along the route, so creating today’s ‘Caravane du Tour’. DO YOU HAVE THE BOTTLE? Mercier’s marketing nous wasn’t limited to grand gestures. Sometimes it’s seeing the small things that make a difference. Like noticing that people watch the bottle almost the whole time a waiter pours a glass of champagne. This led the company to run its name horizontally along the length of a bottle, and so reinforce its brand at every opportunity. The business results of such inspired thinking and commitment to the big picture still stand today. In a world where there are over 12,000 brands of champagne (and you thought you had competitor problems!), Mercier is still the best seller in France - a market that consumes 175 million bottles a year. It’s a classic case study in seeing things differently, making a market and differentiating a brand. While there are others that have found a niche or certain cachet (Patsy’s bottle of Bollinger in AbFab; Moet & Chandon in Killer Queen; Winston Churchill’s daily bottle of Pol Roger), it’s thanks to Eugene Mercier that we’ll be raising a glass of sparkling white to toast friends and loved ones in the days ahead.
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