Benoît Collard was appointed managing director of Piper-Heidsieck in 2015. He is an interesting and knowledgeable man in his 40s, calm, open, and clear in his mind about his role and ambitions at the helm of this prestigious house. His long experience in the world of champagne, wine, spirits, and other beverages gives him a unique point of view to steer Piper-Heidsieck toward a bright future. In this interview, he provides a great insight into the role of quality, brand, and distribution in the global success of his house and champagne.
You started your career in bottled water and then moved into alcoholic beverages. What have you learned from these experiences, and how do they enrich your work in champagne?
I started my career in management at Nestlé Waters with the desire to understand how a company works from the inside. This experience allowed me to understand the issues related to distribution and the importance of the strength of a brand in its international development. But I quickly realized that when there is a little alcohol with the bubbles, it fits me more. This is why I joined Moët Hennessy, initially in Champagne, and then in the Napa Valley and Germany in the distribution side of the business, to finally return to France to develop the champagnes and spirits brands of the group. Then, I moved to Rémy Cointreau (that owned Piper-Heidsieck until 2011) to take care of the on-trade distribution such as restaurants and wine merchants and eventually joined Piper-Heidsieck in 2015.
The strength of champagne is based on its international development and the development of its strongest brands.
What I retain from my career are three strong ideas: 1) champagne is at the crossroads between the world of wine and the universe of spirits; 2) the champagne consumer is attracted by a brand; 3) the strength of champagne is based on its international development and the development of its strongest brands.
Why is the champagne consumer attracted by a brand? What role do the “champagne” brand and those of its houses play?
Champagne is both a wine and a brand because the consumer appreciates the quality of the product and its luxury image.
Champagne is both a wine and a brand because the consumer appreciates the quality of the product and its luxury image. The great houses associated, for almost three centuries, champagne with exceptional moments, developed this image, attracting the consumer beyond wine by conveying emotions that are unique to luxury brands.
In this exercise, a successful champagne brand is recognized as such when it reminds the consumer that champagne is synonymous with unique, special, festive moments. But also, that conveys all the aspects related to wine, thus to the rational dimension of excellence in the product, which rests on the strength of the Champagne terroir and its AOC. Therefore, these two brands, that of champagne and that of the house feed each other. But at the same time, a great house must have a unique identity and message to differentiate itself from other brands.
What are the values of your house that are embedded in your brand?
Piper-Heidsieck is the fruit of a love story. Florens-Louis Heidsieck stopped in Reims in the 18th century when it was an important place of business. At 23, he met Agathe Perthois. To marry her, he sought an activity that fascinated him and that allowed him to stay in Champagne. Thus, he created his house in 1785. He was the first of many Germans who were attracted by the excellence of the Champagne wines and their potential, and who participated in its development in the 18th and 19th century. Audacious, he presented his wine to the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, in 1788. She was seduced and became his first ambassador and made it a success.
Today, our brand is synonymous with seduction, sharing, daring, innovating.
The value of seduction has always remained deeply tied to our house. For example, by its link with the cinema (Piper-Heidsieck is an official partner of the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival), Hollywood, and Marilyn Monroe who used to wake with a flute of Piper-Heidsieck that warmed her body. Our house has also been traditionally connected to the concept of conviviality and elegance. We are the first house to partner with a couturier, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Today, our brand is synonymous with seduction, sharing, daring, innovating, and has always expressed itself with a strong visual: very distinctive red and gold colors.
The house changed ownership during its history to eventually become part of the EPI group in 2011. What are your ambitions and what is your development strategy?
Since the acquisition by EPI, the priority for the Descours family, the shareholder of the group, has been to reinforce the position of Piper-Heidsieck as a great Champagne house and to reaffirm our strong and distinctive brand image all over the world. This requires a premium positioning. Remaining a family house is a great advantage because, in Champagne, the fundamental value is time and we are not subject to the pressure of quarterly results. Time gives us the ability to invest in a collection of reserve wines, which allows a continuous improvement of our Brut cuvée, and to invest in the aging of our champagnes. And the supplies of grapes with long-term partnerships with the vine growers who deliver us all the crus we need–more than a hundred–allows us to ensure the quality of our award-winning wines. Today, we are the most awarded Champagne house of the century.
With the premiumization of our offer, we must have a size that justifies a global presence. For that, we need to reach production volumes of around 5 million bottles per year. We are close to this goal, but our vision is to reach it while ensuring the right value of our wines.
What are your most important present and future markets?
More than 90% of our turnover is made abroad, with a presence in over 100 countries. Our first market is Australia, which keeps on growing. Sales outside of Western Europe (the domestic champagne market) account for more than 50% of our turnover. For several years, we have seen our activity grow significantly not only in Australia but also in the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and China. We are also reconquering Western European countries to reposition the brand, particularly the UK where we are experiencing strong growth.
What role does the price of your champagnes play in reinforcing your positioning?
The perceived quality of a product and a luxury brand is linked to its price positioning, and in the wine world, the price is one of the first criteria of choice of the consumer. A luxury brand needs a premium positioning, but this is not a sufficient element because it must be justified. For this, we make choices that always go toward excellence, perceived quality, for the long-term reinforcement of our brand. At the same time, at the distribution level, we must ensure our presence and control the promotional policies. This is why we have also halted certain commercial operations in supermarkets because the promotion of our champagnes can only be done following this premium positioning.
Don’t you think that this premiumization, common to other houses, may drive consumers away from champagne?
The growing demands for champagne in new countries, for which champagne was not a known product, will offset the decline in champagne consumption in traditional and mature markets.
The growing demands for champagne in new countries, for which champagne was not a known product, will offset the decline in champagne consumption in traditional and mature markets. We are witnessing market dynamics that are not specific to champagne but to all the great wines and products for which quality cannot be compromised, and the challenge is to make the best use of the Champagne terroir. We must recruit consumers for this product and not compromise the quality to ensure that we are competitive with other wine regions that do not have the same quality constraints. Indeed, the champagne consumer in 10 years will probably not be the same champagne consumer of 10 years ago.
How do you see the profile of champagne consumers evolving?
For some time, the world of champagne has not been able to recruit enough new consumers, while the options for consumers have expanded. We are witnessing the development of the consumption of cocktails in traditional wine consuming countries, and the growing consumption of wines in countries traditionally consuming cocktails.
In this context, we have the ambition to acquire new consumers younger than the classic champagne lovers, in the upper millennials (30-45 years old). These consumers are curious and open to the world and have in common the logic of sharing when opportunities are created. These consumers seek authenticity, know-how, and strong and distinctive brands with a bold message.
I am proud to have young teams of men and women not only from champagne but also from beer and water backgrounds, from France and abroad, who bring different perspectives to our universe. These individuals understand the current issues of champagne and remain humble when facing other brands. Besides, our Chef de Cave Émilien Boutillat is one of the youngest among his peers; but his experience is surprising, and I am convinced that he is the future genius of our region, like other great chefs de cave have been in the past.
All our own vineyards have been certified for High Environmental Value (HVE) and Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne (VDC) for several years already.
We must also meet the new environmental expectations of consumers. In this context, the preservation of the Champagne region and the ability to communicate our efforts and attention to the environment are key elements for the future of champagne. All our own vineyards have been certified for High Environmental Value (HVE) and Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne (VDC) for several years already, and we strongly support our vine-growing partners in this direction. We have invested to introduce in the vineyard modern and innovative tools that meet the challenges of sustainable viticulture, reducing phytosanitary treatments and preserving the quality of life of vine growers. This involves solar-powered autonomous robots that apply precise and confined treatments, enabling a 90% reduction in the products used, without dispersion in the air and the soil. The ultimate vision of our house is to have all the grapes we use certified HVE and VDC.
On this basis, we believe that Piper-Heidsieck can and should recruit these new consumers. The strength and role of a great Champagne house are to open doors, but it is also an opportunity for us to differentiate our brand from other houses and other categories of products.
How do you look at the growing competition of other sparkling wines?
I think that in the long term the consumer who is interested in sparkling wine will gradually increase his champagne consumption.
We are witnessing a growth in the global consumption of sparkling wines, but if in the short term in some countries this impacts the demand of champagne, I think that in the long term the consumer who is interested in sparkling wine will gradually increase his champagne consumption. So, I am convinced that the development of other sparkling wines around the world is a positive element for champagne, as long as we continue to invest in the quality of our wines and our brands.
How the champagne’s image of luxury can coexist with its presence in supermarkets? Why this anomaly?
During my experience in the distribution sector, I realized that champagne was the only luxury product present in all the retail networks and especially in supermarkets. The large houses are the image of champagne around the world, with brands that are built both in restaurants and wine shops, as in more festive places such as cocktail bars. The consumer, attracted by the image of these big brands that he perceives in these places, expects to find and be able to acquire them where he does his shopping so in a supermarket where hence we must also be present.
The large houses are the image of champagne around the world.
If your Cuvée Brut is present in all distribution networks, your Essentiel range is present mainly in wine shops and restaurants. Why this segmentation?
The challenges of champagne distribution vary between countries and their maturity in terms of consumption. In France, we have been witnessing for some years a return of the wine merchants who enjoy a flourishing activity. Champagne, and wine in general, are products for which consumers have great difficulty in making a choice. At the same time, we are observing an act of purchase connected to the experience where the consumer enjoys discussing, exchanging, and discovering. This is the strength of the wine merchants who meet the expectations of these consumers.
That is why we launched Essentiel, and most recently Essentiel Blanc de Blancs. They are non-vintage champagnes, made from specific crus that correspond to our style, which enjoy prolonged aging that reinforces their aromatic complexity, and which receives extra brut dosage to bring out precision and elegance. These wines correspond much more to what consumers expect from wine merchants or sommeliers, and they are dedicated to them. These cuvées carry technical elements that wine professionals can explain.
Your job at the helm of one of the greatest Champagne houses is peculiar and rare. How would you explain it?
When I’m asked about my work, I explain that I sell pleasure legally.
When I’m asked about my work, I explain that I sell pleasure legally, because my job is to develop and sell a bottle so that the consumer, when he o she opens it, lives a moment of pleasure. Champagne is magic: it is served on festive occasions, but also the simple opening a bottle creates magic and makes the occasion festive.
Do you drink champagne every day?
No, because champagne is an exceptional product. I have the chance to drink it regularly, perhaps more often than other consumers, but opening a bottle of champagne is always a special moment for me.
What does champagne mean to you? What would life be like without champagne?
A life without champagne would be primitive. No other product makes me dream like champagne.
Champagne is elegance, know-how, heritage, and future. Life is worth living only when we make it exceptional. A life without champagne would be primitive. No other product makes me dream like champagne.