Hennessy holds off competition to retain market leadership in cognac category

What began as a royal order in 1818 for Hennessy group to prepare a VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) Cognac in faraway France has through the years become a norm, turning the drink to a global brand.

Celebrating this historic milestone of 200 years last year, Hennessy team in Nigeria hosted Hennessy Business Development Head, China, Roch Hennessy and Hennessy Global Brand Ambassador, Maurice Hennessy on a weeklong visit. The visit being the last leg of an African tour that had already taken the duo to Kenya and South Africa saw the team visit some notable outlets where Hennessy bottles are sold in Lagos.

According to Roch, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are top three markets in Africa for their products, which include other brands of alcoholic drinks, adding that Hennessy products have been very popular among the African-Americans in the United States of America for over 60 years or so. But out of the three, Roch said it was Nigeria that accounted for the most number of Hennessy bottles sold in Africa.

So why do Nigerians love Hennessy that much?

In a sense, the popularity of a luxury drink like Hennessy in Nigeria, a country with half its population living under $2 a day and where many cannot afford a decent meal, is bizarre. After all, the cheapest bottle of Hennessy in most places in Lagos goes for around ₦4,895. Yet, millions of bottles are sold each year.

Benjamin Nosike, Lagos based lawyer, who has been drinking Hennessy since 2008, believes the cognac was made popular by pop culture. “Back then, a lot of people associated with Henny because their favourite African-American rappers were rapping about the drink. There was also the Tupac and Biggie factor,” he reminded Marketing Edge.

Hip Hop has always reserved a special place for the French cognac. In turn, fans have always been attracted to the alluring parts of their favourite artists’ lifestyles, and with a generation of Nigerians so heavily influenced by African-American music, it’s no surprise that they picked up the Hennessy culture.

Moët Hennessy, the owner of the Hennessy, has latched on to this appeal. In 2009, they launched a Collector bottle in honour of President Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. President, called Hennessy VS 44.

“From the mid-90s, African-American pop culture fed into the Nigerian youth culture, and though its influence may have waned slightly, it still shapes trends. Here, people follow the crowd, and many drink Henny because everyone else seems to be doing so, Ugo Uwajei, a brand analyst recalled.

In a similar vein, Chijioke Silva, a bar owner in Rivers State, also acknowledged the bandwagon effect. “Sometimes, people can’t point out the exact reason they like Hennessy. I’ve had conversations where people admit purchasing the drink because it’s what everybody else is doing,” he revealed.

Regardless of the motive, Hennessy VS seems to be the most popular type on the street. Chijioke disclosed that more people order for VS because it is cheaper than other types. “Henny VS is what sells out the most for me. I sell the 35cl bottle for a little over ₦4,500. It is what these young boys come here to drink at night,” he revealed with a smile. “The likes of V.S.O.P and X.O are more expensive and sometimes out of the range of the average drinker,” he said.

Those at the higher spectrum of the income chain, however, have the luxury of buying X.O, which costs about ₦65,000. For Nosike, this luxury comes once in a while when he is with older cousins. “They earn more than I do so we all pool cash and buy X.O,” he told Marketing Edge. “When I am alone or with friends within the same income bracket, we buy VS and V.S.O.P,” he enthused.

Hennessy officially entered the Nigerian market in 2001, when Moët Hennessy opened an office in Ikoyi, Lagos. Previously, Nigerians enjoyed Hennessy because it was distributed by independent merchants who imported the product, according to Maria Martinez, Managing Director of Luxeria Spirits. “They travelled, liked the drink and decided to bring it into the country themselves. The Hennessy team later took an interest in the market after noticing how well their product was doing in Nigeria,” she said.

The Hennessy team is tight-lipped about how they managed to penetrate the Nigerian market and assert their dominance. One thing that is clear, however, is that the company is heavily invested in the Nigerian market. Speaking on Hennessy’s success in Nigeria, Bernard Peillon, President of Hennessy, attributed its growth to understanding the market and the needs of consumers. According to him, the company teams up with local partners who understand the Nigerian market. “There is no way a team of French people and I coming into Nigeria can understand it with the same intimacy as if you have a local partner. And that allows us to decipher and understand the specifics of a market like Nigeria,” he explained.

The team has also embraced and capitalised on the influence hip-hop artists in Nigeria have over fans. In 2017,  Timaya, Falz, and Ycee were signed as brand ambassadors. Marketing Edge’s survey shows Hennessy retains its appeal because of the artists associated with the brand. “I remember when Timaya became an ambassador. People came to the bar to order Hennessy to celebrate that,” a Lagos bar owner revealed.

Hennessy artistry, an annual concert aimed at fusing music, art, and culture in the country, is another way the brand latches on to Nigeria’s pop culture. For Maria, a concert around promoting Hennessy through infusing creative talent is the most interesting part of the brand’s strategy. “I love the way Hennessy embraces the music culture. Nigerian music has grown so well, and it’s very refreshing to see that Hennessy embraces it,” she commended.

The cognac challenge

From all indications, Hennessy is leading Nigeria’s cognac market. Even as rivals such as Remy Martin and Martell creep up on the scene, dislodging Hennessy from the cognac throne will be a hard task. Remy Martin, for example, has a long history of partnering with artists, and there have been collaborations with celebrities like Falz, Noble Igwe, Dj Jimmy Jatt, and Zainab Balogun in the past.

But Henny’s first-mover advantage may have secured it a permanent status as Nigeria’s premier drink, despite the best marketing effort of its competitors. Being the first to hit the Nigerian market, the brand has a competitive edge over others as it occupies a significant portion of the market.


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