The economies of Europe rely in no small measure on building luxury brands and selling the products to the better off of the world.
The brand of champagne is one of the oldest and most famous of these products.We can learn from the French success at building this brand. It is a way for relatively affluent French workers to maintain their living standards in a very competitive and tough world.
The brilliance of the brand and the marketing is obvious. The product is defined by association with success, happiness and life’s landmarks. Most want or aspire to a champagne wedding, a champagne moment in sport, a glass on graduating, a taste at landmark birthdays. This wine gets ample free publicity every time someone wins a grand prix or a test match. No-one suggests putting the champagne on ice for a funeral, or to drown sorrows if you have just failed your exam or lost the race. Champagne, by ruthless control of the settings and the brand values, has achieved the ad man’s dream of only good associations.
They have also achieved the use of the word for something more than just a product description. A “champagne moment” is not literally one where you sip champagne whilst taking the perfect cricket catch or scoring the best goal. The champagne lifestyle is more than affording a bottle of bubbles on saturday night.
The brand is sustained by strict controls. No-one outside a specified area of France is allowed to make a champagne, though there are plenty of winemakers elsewhere in the world who can make great bubbly wines, and can use similar techniques to the French. Controlling the use of the name keeps the wine scarce and keeps prices high.
The high prices are buttressed by draconian controls in champagne country itself. Only designated fields can grow champagne grapes, and the wine can only be made from three controlled varieties. Other fields adjacent to the vineyard, with similar soil and same aspects, are not permitted for crop expansion. The premier cru wine has to be made from just a few designated special village areas. No other grape will do, however good the alternative grape might be.
Talk to the believers in champagne and they will tell you it has to stay this restricted. The “magic” comes from the scarcity. Others outside might say that as the world is producing so many more better off people who want their own champagne moments, maybe they could expand the vineyards and increase the output more rapidly without damaging the brand and the prices. After all, Germany has mass produced luxury cars under the Mercedes and BMW labels and got away with it. They are still thought to be luxury or special by many people, even though there are so many of them now.
If Europeans want to keep up their high living standards in a world where many more countries are working smarter and harder, Europe will need more of these great brands. Europeans also need to know how and when to stretch the brands, so they keep their magic but serve many more people. French winemakers underestimated the excellence of their Californian competitors in the second half of the last century, only to be forced to recognise their quality and excellence in the end.