By Martinne Geller
COGNAC, France (Reuters) - France's centuries-old cognac houses are raising their bets on the U.S. market with new products and campaigns to broaden the drink's appeal beyond its African American stronghold.
The big four producers -- LVMH Moet Hennessy , Remy Cointreau , Pernod Ricard and Beam Suntory [BSI.UL] -- have turned more of their attention to the U.S. following a drop in sales in China after an anti-graft campaign.
On its home turf cognac is seen as the drink of choice for mature gentlemen but in the United States it is often enjoyed by status-conscious revelers inspired by blingy bottles and hip-hop name-dropping songs like Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier."
Black culture's taste for cognac, which only comes from the area around the western French town of that name, dates back at least to the time when U.S. soldiers were visiting jazz-mad Paris bars during the world wars. Back home it was an alternative to American whiskey, often made in southern states with histories of slavery and racial segregation.
The African American community accounted for nearly two-thirds of all cognac drunk in the world's biggest market, say executives and analysts. Yet that's now changing.
Producers of the drink, made by distilling white wine and aging it in oak barrels for anywhere from two to dozens of years, now need to reach other groups to help fill the space left by China.
"We don't want cognac just to be for one category of person," Remy Martin Executive Director Augustin Depardon told Reuters during a visit to the Cognac region, where over 75,000 hectares of vineyards grow mostly Ugni Blanc grapes that become the building blocks of cognac.
Depardon said a new campaign featuring Hollywood actor Jeremy Renner, one of the stars of The Avengers, was aimed at a broader audience.
'PRIORITY NO. 1'
Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier make 85 percent of all cognac, and they are competing harder than ever, trying to harness the current boom in "brown spirits" like bourbon and rum.
"We've seen a lot of our cognac competitors be more aggressive in the United States, actually investing in media campaigns on a scale we've never seen before," said Jean-Baptiste Rivail, Hennessy's director of business development for the Americas. "The momentum of Hennessy and brown spirits has attracted quiet players to play harder in the U.S. market."
One of the quiet players is Pernod Ricard's Martell, which at 300 years old, is cognac's elder statesman. After pushing hard in China to become the leading player there, the brand is now trying to lift its 2 percent share of the U.S. market.
"It is going to be our priority Number One," said Christophe Pienkowski, Martell's international heritage brand ambassador.
Initiatives include a new variety called Charactere, which Martell hopes will help convert whisky-drinking Latinos, and a campaign with The Roots, who have recently gone from respected hip-hop group to household name as the official band for the U.S.'s Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.
Cognac suppliers sold 4.1 million 9-litre cases in the U.S. last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, up 11.9 percent from 2013, which only saw a 3.7 percent gain. It was the fastest-growing segment of a spirits market up only 2.2 percent, though from a small base. The trade group's economist said this year may be even stronger.
Euromonitor forecasts U.S. retail cognac sales of $5.2 billion in 2015, up 9 percent from last year. That would see it surpass the Chinese market, which it estimates will have lost 36 percent of its value since a peak of $7.8 billion in 2012.
The companies are also trying to push cognac into cocktails. While brandy is the main ingredient for classic drinks like Sidecars and Alexanders, it is not as prevalent on modern cocktail menus as bourbon, tequila and gin.
To that end, Hennessy has launched Hennessy Black, which it says is better for cocktails as it has a delicate taste that eases mixability and a stronger alcohol content that can withstand dilution.
"Cognac seems, in my mind, to have a rightful place in the cocktail craze that hasn't been fully taken advantage of," said Rabobank analyst Stephen Rannekleiv. "There's an opportunity to continue making inroads in a demographic they have not generally had a strong presence in."
Nielsen data for the most recent 30-day period suggests that white adult consumers drank 27 percent of the nation's cognac even though they represent 66 percent of the adult population. Black consumers drank 40 percent, though they were only 11.2 percent of the population.
Despite efforts to broaden their market, the brands will be treading carefully so as not to alienate their core audience, having seen how quickly Cristal champagne fell from grace in 2006 after a boycott by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, who is now a backer of Bacardi's new cognac D'Usse.
"African Americans are still accounting for a huge part of cognac consumption in the U.S. and this is still our main target with D'Usse," said Philippe Jouhaud, sales and marketing director for D'Usse.
(Reporting by Martinne Geller in London; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)