The Riddle of the Widow

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1810

One of the greatest triumphs of branding and innovation against the odds took place amidst the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist was a woman born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin but better known to us all as La Veuve Clicquot. Nicole was only 27 when her husband died, leaving her, a young daughter and a hodgepodge of failing family business interests that had been jointly managed with his father, Philippe Clicquot. At the time, the code Napoleon expressly forbade women the right to vote, to earn money, or to be economically active without the consent of their husband or father. An exception was made for widows, and Nicole persuaded her father-in-law to let her have a go at running the business.

Like some Bonaparte-meets-Jane Austen themed episode of The Apprentice, she had to overcome various challenges before with the help of a vigneron mentor, she finally won the trust of the family. With the rigour of a McKinsey hotshot, she completed a portfolio analysis and decided to focus the firm on a single, growing business: sparkling wine. In 1810, just as the Emperor was divorcing Josephine, Nicole at last launched her own champagne house: Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, and in the space of the next twenty years showed herself to be a brand manager of genius. She innovated in process – developing the riddling rack which helped clarify the sediment in bottles. She innovated in positioning: launching the first vintage champagne in 1810. She innovated in product, creating the first blended rosé champagne in1818. But perhaps her greatest coup de théâtre was to break the naval blockades in Europe and get her extra sweet bottles of fizz into the hands of the Russians who lapped the stuff up, even if it did come from Bonaparte’s France. According to the Czar’s brother, Veuve Clicquot was the only thing to drink. 

La Grande Dame enjoyed a long retirement, having built one of the most successful booze brands by case sales and having played a decisive role in establishing Champagne as a truly global (and luxurious) habit. Veuve Clicquot, of course, was the fizz of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, and the preferred choice for Commander Bond and at least one of my favourite clients – you know who you are….

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