How Hennessy builds a branded world for visitors in Cognac

Yesterday I had the chance to visit Cognac and went to the Hennessy Maison next to the river in the heart of the town.  Flagship stores and well designed factory tours are opportunities for brands to do world building and I took this tour with an explorers mindset and a critic’s eye.  What did they do well and what could be improved?

Wei Tze, Nick and I were the only guests for the 1345 tour and had arrived late morning to be guided by the ticket counter to a nice lunch across the river from the visitors centre at L’Atelier des Quais.  We ambled back for the start of the tour and met Alex our very competent and approachable guide.

The 1.5 hour paid tour is divided into a number of locations on each side of the Charantes river and a short boat trip connects the two.  I liked these transitions between spaces and it reminded me that worlds are not a single place but a journey. Everything is very elegant and clearly set up for significant volumes of visitors.  

The first stop is a vast cellar that has been converted into an experience centre.  It still smells of the past and is highly effective in telling the story of history, making and craftsmanship.  There are 6 or 7 areas and the tour is linear and guided.  The pace is set by the guide, Alex, via an iPad and this allowed us to ask questions and not feel rushed.  Each location is only a few mins but beautifully done with multiple screens, interesting projections, sound and music.  Alex told us the attraction was about 5 years old but it feels fresh and very on brand.

The process of cognac making is particularly well illustrated with a controlled back projection display and as Alex suggested the double distillation process of eaux de vie  can be understood on many different levels from the same exhibit. A more conventional multiscreen film shows us how (some) barrels are made by traditional coopering methods.  Craftsmanship and savoire faire is stressed throughout.  This is a strongly branded experience and leaves a strong impression (as an effectively crafted world should).

The final stop in the experience centre is an interesting circular projection celebrating the brand’s connections and partnerships with artists and the NBA.  This speaks to the brand’s youthful focus on new markets and consumers and is a powerful reminder that new visitors are welcome (and needed) to the world.

The second location is another cellar; this one fully working and one of 70 cellars used by Hennessy.  It is clear that we are seeing the tip of a vast production, cellaring and distribution business and glimpsing only a small part of the operation involving many independent partners, suppliers, growers and producers.  I think there are opportunities here to bring these “others” more clearly into the world.

Back across the river and we enter the tasting and selling parts of the journey.  Keeping these separate feels nice and the journey is worth making as it helps the impressions, sights and smells sink in.  Hennessy has certainly created a full sensory experience and this feels like an important learning in world building; it’s not just a museum with a shop attached.

Alex conducts the tasting and its simple and effective allowing us to experience the VS and VSOP cognacs (the best sellers) in 4 different ways.  He takes his time to tutor us in the method and provides a language for us to discuss the experience.  I personally find the two brandies (2 year and 4 year) very similar but the theatre is great and memorable.  Once again there is a real  attempt to bridge the gap to younger audiences with a cocktail offered as the final tasting that is easy to make, familiar and interesting.  A QR code provides us with access to the recipe.

The final part of the tour is in the boutique and some interesting choices have been made by the designers.  The first is switching our guide (from not commerce to commerce).  Alex was genuinely our world guide and I think this was exactly the right decision.  We were stepping back into a shop and forcing him to switch roles would have been a bad idea.  The emphasis in the boutique is on access to beautiful versions of the product, expressions of the brand, celebrations of collaborations and affordable souvenirs.  The message is prestige and premium and feels consistent with what we have experienced.

I think Hennessy has already done an impressive job in building a world:

1. Very strong and simple branding across multiple senses

2. Simple storytelling with multiple parts of the story in multiple locations

3. Teaching visitors a language with which they can share the experience 

4. Multiple perspectives: history and tradition, craft, geography, science, partnerships

5. Hints at modern, younger collaborations and audiences

But there are many ideas that could be taken further and perhaps these will be in the next iteration of this kind of experience

1. Connect me with other places where the experience can be continued

2. Let me tell you more about myself, my needs and my existing experience 

3. Give me tools to keep the journey going after I step outside

4. Give me a bit more choice as I explore

5. Give me more of a role in the adventure

6. Let me contribute

7. Give me reasons to come back

8. Let me see how the brand helps me be more social

9. Connect with me before I reach the visitors centre

10. Don’t say goodbye

Digital tools could be at the heart of these new components although the elegance and design values need to stay at the current level. Perhaps the tools are not good enough yet.  

Have you been to a better branded world? How do you think brands should create flagship experiences that connect with experiences out in the rest of the world?

One thought on “How Hennessy builds a branded world for visitors in Cognac

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.