If quiet luxury were a trend amongst cognac lovers, then the independent, family-run HINE would be amongst the leading brands that insiders know, whilst others have yet to discover.
But that may be all about to change as HINE, the sole official cognac supplier to the British Royal household, continues on its quest to shake up the spirits industry starting with an audacious new brand expression, a refreshed global marketing strategy and a desire to challenge to the status-quo, a radical move not often seen in brands more than 260 years old.
In charge of its marketing is Thomas Vigouroux, who joined the company at the start of this year; having previously spent 12 years working at Camus Wines and Spirits in several roles during his time there. Vigouroux is tasked with helping to steer the heritage brand toward new audiences at a time when the volumes of cognac bottles shipped are slowing due to uncertainty in the global market, recording a 15 percent fall in sale volumes over the past 12 months.
According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), which represents, develops and preserves the Cognac AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), both in France and abroad, the slowdowns were due to a combination of factors including logistical challenges, inflation, excess stocks and price increases in the US and very restrictive health measures imposed for several months in China.
Yet, despite this, cognac has been going through a renaissance over the past few years. In 2019, 2021 and 2022, the cognac sector saw historic rises in both volume and value. And while the latest figures from the BNIC show a slowdown, its sales by value increased by 4.3 percent, meaning the the value of cognac is rising. And the demand from consumers is still there.
One needn’t look that hard to see that there has been a lot of change in the wine and spirits market over the past few years. Drinking habits and preferences are radically changing, established players are being challenged by newer brands entering the market, and consumers are becoming more educated about what they’re drinking, where they’re drinking and how they’re drinking it, which, in turn, is fuelling demand for hard spirits like cognac.
New connoisseurs are expressing their appreciation for artisanal producers whose eaux-de-vie are famed for their unique flavours, and whose distillation processes allow for more authentic aromatic profiles that younger audiences are actively seeking out.
It is these new trends within the wine and spirits market that keep brands like HINE on its toes, and Vigouroux’s job is to keep inspiring its customers, new and old, to interact with HINE and connect with it on a more personal level particularly as it moves forward into a new chapter.
“If you look at the history of cognac, you can see that spirits have always been a very innovative industry,” said Vigouroux, in an interview with Luxury Society. “Particularly, over the past five years, there have been new trends that are moving pretty fast, driven mainly by the US market, but we see it spreading across Europe and the rest of the world too.”
And they’re proving to be a turning point for the industry, as younger, more savvy and experience-led consumers look for new ways to enjoy cognac in a variety of different ways; in cocktails and mixed drinks, paired with a meal, on the rocks, and yes, it can still be drunk straight and as an after-dinner aperitif.
Many younger cognac brands are responding to that, as seen with newer celebrity-led brands like D’Usse and Branson, which have entered the market in recent years, offering free engraving on their personalised bottles, sharing cocktail recipes, virtual tasting experiences and membership programmes.
Gone are the days of middle-aged men in padded jackets, smoke-filled cigar rooms, sitting on leather Chesterfield sofas in panelled wood rooms, and in its place are more modern, bold and provocative communications that are playful and tongue-in-cheek, that aim to push the boundaries beyond the staid imagery usually associated with hard spirits as seen with HINE’s new brand expression.
“As artisan creators, we need to make sure that we protect our heritage, but we also need to make sure that we move with the times and innovate in the ways that we can to speak to new consumers who are interested in connecting with our brand and our history.”
To help articulate its vision for its new brand expression, HINE partnered with DLG (Digital Luxury Group) to reposition itself towards younger audiences, focusing on its heritage, rarity and position as a boutique brand.
DLG devised its new bold visual approach, to help it stand out and differentiate itself from the main players in the market, as well as the brand’s tonality which takes a more direct voice in addressing its audiences. Because in order to capture the attention of these fast-moving, trend-led aficionados, you need to speak to them in a language that invites them in rather than shuts them out.
Yet, it’s an interesting juxtaposition from one of HINE’s long-held beliefs towards the making of its products, which is to take time to wait for a cognac to fully develop so that you can savour the time it took to make it.
“In all of our campaigns, our consumers are at the centre of everything,” said Vigouroux. “That’s really something that we wanted to be known for in our brand expression. That our approach is different, that how they experience our product should be different to what’s out there in the market.”
“All of our communications are centred around a touch point,” he continued. “So even if its the website or digital communications on social media that we are talking about, they all come back to the physical link with our products, either through tastings and visits, which is a part of our DNA that has always been very important.”
“You need to find the right balance,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of room here for training and experience that we offer to both distributors and consumers. And part of our strategy is to offer different activations for the different markets that we operate in.”
Earlier this year, HINE put in place a Father’s Day campaign in the United States featuring call to actions like “Make Him Proud With Every Choice You Make,” recording 434K impressions in its first week.
Another part of HINE’s marketing strategy is to be more inclusive towards newer audiences by ensuring the language that it uses directly addresses its consumers, focusing on why they make a choice to “At HINE and Nowhere Else.” This is complemented by its wine-tasting experiences at its headquarters in Jarnac, located in the heart of the premium wine-growing area of the Grande Champagne in the Cognac region, where it owns over 115 hectares of vines and employs over 40 people.
Here, visitors can choose to sample a range of its different cognacs through the different experiences offered, starting from its H by Hine and climbing up to its more exclusive vintage bottles like MillEsime Jarnac.
Experiences aside, there are other considerations that HINE takes into account when looking towards the future. One of the areas that it is looking to innovate in is sustainability. But trying to reverse engineer sustainability into a creation process that is literally hundreds of years old is no small task.
Still, the company is looking into all ways in which it can be more sustainable. Some of its considerations include being able to refill its bottles or trying to lighten its packaging so that less CO2 is used to transport its products. But as with all things sustainable, implementing changes do not come with an easy or simple solution.
“It’s about trying to make changes that will stand the test of time,” said Vigouroux. “We try to think of every single way in which we can be more sustainable, and then we have to balance that with the reality of what we can do to make an impact.”
Luckily, the Cognac industry does not plan to rest on its laurels. In 2023, the BNIC unveiled measures aiming to accelerate the sector’s environmental transition, including the implementation of a collective support and funding scheme for Research & Development projects called Imagine Cognac, and the strengthening of Cognac Environmental Certification (CEC), with the aim of certifying 100 percent estates by 2028.
Sustainability isn’t the only area where HINE is trying to innovate. It has also made an effort to embed itself into cultural activities that resonate more deeply with its consumers by sponsoring the Royal College of Art Painting Prize in the UK.
First launched in 2011, the prize is awarded to a fine arts graduate whose work resonates with HINE’s innovative spirit. Once selected, the artist’s work joins the company’s art collection that is exhibited in HINE House in Jarnac. HINE has also collaborated with each winner since 2016, whereby they can create an original piece of art for the packaging of its H By Hine collection.
In 2022, Albano Hernandez created an oil on canvas painting, which was then been mechanically fragmented and then recomposed from right to left and top to bottom to create a unique and singular work on its limited edition casing.
It’s this kind of thinking and being able to respond to the wider shifts in the market such as how to make a deeper cultural impact beyond its products that Vigouroux believes will set the company in good stead for the long term.
“It comes from being independent and being more agile,” he said. “We are doing things in a way that only we can do it. Even if you look at our brand expression and how we now talk to our customers. It’s very audacious. Even down to the shape of our bottle, it’s distinctive compared to many of our competitors. You know it’s a Hine bottle.”