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Barring partners

Published:  23 July, 2008

An increasing number of Champagne companies no longer want to be merely one of a number of bottles behind the bar and are choosing instead to sponsor a whole bar or at least affiliate their brand with a particular organisation. But why are they doing this, and what does each party get out of it?

Bollinger was the first big name to grasp the potential here, opening a branded bar in London's Grosvenor Hotel in November 2000. This location will soon be lost, due to refurbishment, but Scotland is the new beneficiary, with the recent launch of a Bollinger bar at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. London is not bereft, however; Bollinger is the official sponsor of the English National Opera, which has led to the opening of a branded bar in the Coliseum Theatre. Asked if this sort of venture is more important from a sales or marketing viewpoint, brand controller Jonathan Stevens says, Essentially, it's about marketing and brand promotion. We are keen to associate with a like-minded brand that wants to work with us and, really, the sales are just an added spin-off.'

And is it profitable? Yes, according to Stevens. At around 50 per bottle, it's profitable for the bar, profitable for us and the customers are experiencing Bollinger in a lovely environment.' Given such a positive response, it's a wonder that Bollinger bars aren't popping up all over the place, but Stevens is keen to stress that this is not the point. It is not a chain concept. We want to work with the right kind of association, and because our policy is very much based around discretion and "less is more", it wouldn't be appropriate for us to have a large number of bars in cities across the UK.'

It would seem that the idea of forming a relationship with an organisation that suitably reflects the aspirations of the brand

is one of the most important aspects of this type of partnership. The recent movement of Mot & Chandon from the Royal Opera House (ROH) to Selfridges is indicative of this point. Since the advent of Mot's official sponsorship of London Fashion Week in 1997, the company has been aligning itself ever closer with the designer world. Commenting on the change, Anna Freedman, marketing manager at Mot & Chandon, says, The Mot brand is all about living a fabulous life, and we have to make choices about which programmes are most in line with this positioning. The bar at the ROH worked well for us for some years, but in order to be dynamic and forward thinking, a brand must continue to move on and innovate.'

And the Mot bar at Selfridges is nothing if not fashionable. With cream leather seats, an integrated plasma screen showing Mot-sponsored fashion tributes and a view of Selfridges' collection of designer accessories, there's no doubting where Mot's affiliations lie. Freeman is very happy with progress of the bar so far. As our products are sold through the bar, we are able to generate a return on our investment, and we can also test-market new products and concepts in our own controlled environment before taking them to a wider audience.' As if to prove the success of this partnership, Mot will open two new branded bars within the Selfridges estate in Birmingham and Manchester Exchange Square before Christmas.

The ROH is not mourning the loss of Mot, however. Instead, it's celebrating the arrival of Perrier Jout and a grand new centrepiece bar to boot. James Cornewall-Walker, general manager of Searcy's (catering company at the ROH) is convinced that the change has been for the better. Mot used to be the preferred Champagne supplier to the house, but last year it was felt there was a loss of interest, and so it was basically put out to tender and we liked what Perrier Jout was offering - not just in terms of the product but the overall package - as well as its idea for the bar, which was completely redesigned in line with the theme of its premium Belle Epoque range.'

Another advantage to the new relationship, according to Cornewall-Walker, is the availability of drinks other than Champagne at the bar. Our previous suppliers wouldn't let us serve anything other than Champagne, and if customers wanted something else, they had to go to another bar. This often resulted in the loss of the Champagne sale, and the new option of one red and one white wine has shown an increase in profits.'

The commercial side of the arrangement is obviously important to the ROH, and regarding the benefits of a sponsored bar, Cornewall-Walker is candid. The house would want to do this because, quite frankly, it brings in a fixed amount of money each year, and there's a certain amount of free stock that can be used for development events. Basically, it's a win-win situation. The house is all about the best in everything that they do, and Perrier Jout is an iconic brand.' Ed Penny, senior brand manager for Perrier Jout, is also feeling the benefits of the partnership. The ROH is host to some of the best opera in the world, and it's a magnificent venue - full of people who are in the mood for Champagne. It's great visibility for the brand.'

There's no business like

Taittinger is another Champagne brand that feels right at home in the cultural sphere, shown by its sponsorship programme across the board - including an ongoing contract with the BAFTAs. Ties with the performing arts are now even stronger, following this year's launch of a sponsored bar at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, with Lesley Garrett on hand to crack open the first bottles. This is a first for the brand. Commenting on the attraction of a Scottish city over the pull of London, Lynn Murray, marketing controller at Hatch Mansfield, says, We want to build regional awareness for Taittinger, and in the case of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, it is those consumers interested in arts and culture who tend to have an affinity with Champagne. Plus, of course, there is the Edinburgh Festival in August, which brings a large number of visitors to the city.' Murray is equally aware of the commercial advantages. If you have limited advertising budgets, it is a cost-effective way of reaching your target audience,' she reveals.

Champagne Lanson also fits into the showbiz group, with a sponsored bar at the Royal Albert Hall; but one size doesn't always fit all, and Laurent-Perrier has chosen to go down a slightly less flamboyant path. The Laurent-Perrier bar is positioned in the lobby of The Savoy hotel, and without knowing it's there, one could miss it altogether. But excessive branding wouldn't be appropriate or necessary, explains Christopher Cooper, head sommelier at Marcus Wareing at The Savoy Grill, which controls the bar. Laurent-Perrier has had a long-standing relationship with The Savoy. The brand is present in every mini-bar, and it's the pouring Champagne in the Gordon Ramsay-owned restaurant.'

But The Savoy is the last word in traditional, old-school splendour, so why would it want a branded bar? Prestige,' says Cooper. It's good to be able to associate with a recognisable and respected Champagne that the guests are already familiar with. It helps people feel comfortable as soon as they walk in.' He isn't ignoring the commercial side, however, and when asked if the hotel would switch to a different brand if a better offer came along, he comments, This sort of relationship is always fickle. Of course a favourable offer would be looked at - we are a business after all - but it would have to be considered very carefully. The long-term association with Laurent-Perrier would have to be taken into account, along with the expectations of the guests, many of whom have been coming here for 30-odd years. At the moment, this relationship is good for both sides.'

Sorting the men from the boys

In terms of minimalist branding, it's Krug that comes away with the prize. Perhaps this isn't strictly fair, given that the Krug Room at The Dorchester is a very different prospect from the bars discussed so far, but the complete absence of any real branding is still a point of interest. The existence of a private dining room, or chef's table, in the heart of The Dorchester's kitchens first came about in the 1940s, but it wasn't until Henri Brosi took over as executive chef in 1999 that the space was developed for profit. It used to look like a Swiss chalet, and I didn't like it. I wanted to do something more contemporary and commercially viable,' says Brosi.

There is certainly no Swiss chalet in sight anymore; taking its place is a decorative glass table, 12 leather chairs and very little else. The only reference to Krug is a small plaque on the door. The real attraction of the room, however, is a frosted-glass wall that allows the diners an insight into The Dorchester kitchens in action. It's completely away from the formality of the restaurant upstairs, and it's purely based on having fun,' Crosi points out. We've had some really great crowds in there - everyone from Hollywood personalities, to Members of Parliament, to City boys.'

All guests are presented with a glass of Krug Grande Cuve when they arrive, but the Champagne connection comes into its own when a guest specifies a Champagne-only night, which tends to happen two or three times a month. This takes the guests through the Krug range, matching each course with a different Champagne. Food and Champagne aren't exactly the easiest things to match,' admits Brosi, but Krug is one of the most food-compatible Champagnes available, and I've always been someone who explores and pushes boundaries. If someone is doubtful about one of my combinations, I'll generally tell them to shut up until they've tried it!'

Krug has sponsored the room by investing in the space and providing stock, but it's really Crosi's project, and most of the revenue goes to the hotel. So what's in it for Krug? Plenty, says Fred Scarlett, Krug UK director. Krug must always be about the product first, and this arrangement offered us the chance to work with a top chef on an ongoing basis and to build up an enormous repertoire of dishes and experiences all focused around Krug Champagne. Furthermore, as our flagship venue in the UK, we have been able to use it for entertaining key trade members and potential buyers.'

The emphasis for Krug is on word of mouth and, according to Scarlett, the room allows people to be immersed with the Champagne in a way that cannot be achieved through the usual advertising channels. Regarding the potentially delicate topic of Brosi's food matching, Scarlett continues, Every now and then we spy a challenging ingredient sneaking in: Tonga beans with Krug 1990 was a resounding success, but the jury is still out on the snails with daube de boeuf.' And will this remain the only Krug Room? Scarlett isn't sure. Given the success of the Krug Room in the UK, there may be the potential for future outlets abroad. But as far as further UK developments go, we have no plans to change, move or expand.'

The recurring theme in all these sponsored partnerships is the wish to build a significant, and often exclusive, relationship with a like-minded business for the purpose of brand promotion. Not one of these associations gives the impression of being purely about sales, although the parties involved all acknowledge the commercial advantages. The signs of success are already apparent, and it's easy to see why - who wouldn't want to bring a little Mot into a shopping spree or a glass of Taittinger into a night at the theatre? Champagne is often seen as a drink for all occasions, and the big brands are doing their best to take full advantage of this.