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Friday Read: Chasing millennials – a moribund or redefined art?

Published:  15 May, 2020

For as long as I can remember, the wine industry has been coveting youth. Generic bodies have been at the forefront of this rush to connect with Gen Y. The CIVB, Inter Rhône and InterLoire have all invested significant resources into campaigns targeted at millennials.

Yet in a post-Covid-19 world, this obsession with connecting with younger drinkers may fade quicker than a Donald Trump witticism. According to recent Wine Intelligence data, millennials and Gen X drinkers have increased their frequency of wine consumption during the 2020 lockdown. However, a critical mass of millennial consumers are being buoyed by temporary furlough payments; the longer term scenario is less encouraging. Most economists forecast that a major recession is looming, and so it seems reasonable to assume that the under 30s – not exclusively – are going to curtail their non-essential purchases. Analysts like the IWSR are predicting that only budget wine labels will thrive. Perhaps we’ve come full circle. When I was a student, Casillero del Diablo was considered a lavish treat. Most nights, Bull's Blood would do.

But where does this leave luxury categories such as Champagne and its mission to court millennials? In recent times, both the Comité Champagne and individual houses have gone after Gen Y; they’ve organised masterclasses, charmed influencers and wooed bartenders. In 2015, LVMH released several millennial-friendly brands into the market, including Veuve Clicquot’s Rich. “Champagne as a category is in danger of alienating younger drinkers who typically align themselves with brands that give them a sense of freedom. Champagne’s image as it is right now does not do that,” opined Belinda Stone in 2019, head of marketing at Castelnau Wine Agencies. “That's why we adjusted the aesthetics of our labels, to appeal to younger audiences.”

Of course, 2019 seems like a distant memory. Even after economies fully reopen and we return to a new normal – whatever that means – the Champenoise are expecting a slump in global demand. Most businesses severely cut their marketing budgets in a recession; campaigns aimed at Gen Y could well be the first to go. Should we lament or be indifferent to this new reality? Or is there a third way?

Alice Paillard of Champagne Bruno Paillard argues that this is a timely opportunity to reassess how luxury brands speak to this demographic. Paillard is an advocate of letting younger drinkers discover Champagne of their own accord – ageing naturally into the category, rather than ‘assaulting’ them with marketing messages.

“It's the classic industry trap: believing that millennials will remain millennials – with so-called millennial habits – all their life. Just like our generation, they will also evolve and grow their wine knowledge through their experiences,” says Paillard.

“It is clear to me that this approach of masquerading and marketing Champagne as something else (closer to spirits or sodas) is not the solution. Not only would we be making a fool of Champagne, it is also insulting to this generation.”

AR Lenoble’s export and communications director Christian Holthausen is on a similar track. He argues that inherent values – such as family tradition and eco-friendly credentials – carry far more weight with Gen Y than gimmicky campaigns or sweeter cuvées.

“A large number of younger drinkers have embraced AR Lenoble due to our particular values and convictions, including a proven track record in sustainable viticulture. These values and convictions form part of who we are here at AR Lenoble, they are not marketing tricks or short-term strategies,” says Holthausen.

However, some members of the UK trade regard the notion of courting millennials as the ultimate red herring.

“Much of the trade wrings its hands about attracting younger customers, and has little idea how to go about it. That said, premium wine has never really been big amongst younger consumers, so the current situation is not unusual,” argues Jeroboam’s wine director Mitchell MW. “I don’t remember Dom Perignon, Burgundy or Sancerre featuring amongst my contemporaries’ drinking habits 25 years ago.”

Alice Paillard adds: “If I have one certainty about millennials, it is that they have been over-exposed to marketing messages very early. As such, I think many of them are quite demanding in terms of authenticity.  But some elements that are part of the identity of Champagne – diversity of terroirs, notion of assemblage, post-disgorgement ageing, for example – do require time to be properly shared. They cannot be overly simplified. This is the real challenge in a universe where everything moves very quickly, to succeed in transmitting our passion for Champagne.”

The universe may indeed move very quickly, but I, like many people, presently have too much time on my hands. Yet there is an upside to the current situation; moments of crisis can force individuals and organisations to reflect upon past choices. Thus, I’ve considered removing my tattoo of Angela Lansbury. Perhaps the Champenoise and other categories will reconsider their millennial pitch, adopting a more ‘grassroots’ approach favoured by Paillard. Or perhaps Covid-19 will force the luxury wine industry to come full circle, returning the focus to Baby Boomers who still have money to burn.