Business: Interview With Roch Hennessy On Developing Cognac Trends In Africa


Hennessy recently celebrated the 200 anniversary of Hennessy V. S. O. P in Kenya. The Hennessy cognac distillery was founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765. Hennessy, which is a Cognac house has its headquarters in France and they supply 49% of the world cognac market. This makes it the largest cognac producer globally. The celebrations started in Nigeria which is their largest market In Africa, then the team went to South Africa. The third stop was Kenya. The celebrations we presided over by Mr Maurice Hennessy, the global brand Ambassador and 8th generation of the Hennessy family. He was also accompanied by his nephew Mr Roch Hennessy.

A Hennessy Bottle

According to Kenyanwallstreet, Maurice Hennessy credited the longevity in the family business to archiving a very large selection of writings of the founder Richard Hennessy. This allowed the company to understand his initial vision and thus maintain consistency of the brand and the Cognac. He also cited that their authoritarian leadership which was focused more on creating and maintaining excellence as opposed to monetary value helped them a lot too.

Maurice Hennessy was born in 1950 and spent all his youth in Cognac. He then went to study Agriculture at the University of Paris and then went to West Africa. After returning home, he went to London where he helped in working on the development of the British market. He returned to Cognac in 1984. Since then he has travelled the world as Hennessy’s brand ambassador teaching people about the brand’s values and cultivating brand development.

Roch Hennesy also represents the 8th generation of the Hennessy family. Having grown up in Cognac, he is attached to the roots of his Charente region but he is also convinced of the importance of experiencing international cultures. He left for Canada at the age of 17 where he earned a Bachelors of Arts in International Relations at Tufts University. In 2012, he gravitated towards one of his great passions which is aviation. He, however, came back to the world of wines and spirits in 2017 where he was appointed Business Development Manager in charge of steering the brand’s strategic development in China.

I sat down with him to get to know more about the brand.

So how are you enjoying your trip here?

I am enjoying it a lot. The first time I came here I was 8 years old. I went on a safari and I loved it. I fell in love with the beautiful nature, Kenya is a beautiful country and I love how you preserve it as well. There is a very strong culture. I remember visiting the Maasai. It was a full experience and it was great. So I was really happy to come back to Kenya although this is more of a business trip, not a personal one. But it is true that I am really happy to be here. It is our third stop in the African market so we really see a future in terms of VSOP and the rest of the brand.

Kenya is our third largest market in Africa. The Kenyan consumer is a really well round spirit. He is very dedicated to it and he is also very connected as well. Kenya compared to other countries is really great in things like their digital platforms, how the brand engages with the consumer, proposing new experiences like mixology, music, culture, arts and we are really excited about it at Hennessy. We have come here quite a lot. The president of the company came here a long time ago. Now we are here together for the first time. It is also the first time we have travelled together actually.

So Kenya is behind Nigeria and South Africa in terms of sales? How did that happen?

So we have Nigeria then South Africa. Nigeria comes first because of its big population. So even though Kenya is a great country and lost of things are happening, it has a smaller population. Nevertheless, we found that it has a very strong and fast-growing middle class. And they aspire to work with international brands. There is still some more work to be done to develop more partnerships culturally. But in Nigeria, it grew very fast because of the population and love for brown spirits as well. Also the link between the African-American community in the United States and coming back to Nigeria back and forth where Hennessey is a very strong and beloved brand especially in the music community.

What will consumers get out of the 200-year anniversary celebration?

For the anniversary we have a special edition bottle. And basically, us touring and meeting the consumers, press and influencers. We are also holding activation events. We had a very special event with some Kenyan families, and entrepreneurs. We talked, and shared our different experiences which were very nice. Today we have this big event in the hotel where we have interesting plans for artists in street culture and also digital platforms influencers, chefs and trade partners. For example, all the trade partners that are supporting the brand here in Kenya. So the activity around the anniversary is like a gathering and exchange and it is really exciting for us.

Are you planning on doing something that is specific to Kenya?

Well, we had the special edition bottle for the 50th anniversary of the independence of Kenya. That was some years ago. Now we have an office here in Kenya so what we do is activations all around the year. We will try more to reach artists since there is a very strong artistic culture coming up in Africa. There is an entire legacy of arts and culture here but now there is this new generation. We would really like to collaborate with artists and work in that area. I cannot tell you the all the details but I know there is something planned.

We have a local team and they work with distributors. We will be focusing more on marketing and activations for now.

What are the trade partners saying they would like to see in this market?

Trade partners are the ones that are in the field and they have a direct connection to the consumers. We try as well. We have seen that clients like mixology. They always ask about cocktails. How can we develop a cocktail project together and enhance the consumer experience? And we do not want to impose anything, we just want to listen to the consumer, the way they like to enjoy Hennessy. Cognac is quite unique and it is such a versatile product.  You can have it in various ways, you can have it neat, on the rocks or mixed with various soft drinks. So the trade partners can help us identify those ways of drinking and also build activations together. We can also have different events, we can invite an artist, or even a DJ during a Hennessy activation.

The brand we sell is not one that imposes itself on the consumer, it is the consumer that appropriates the brand. They feel a real connection with the brand and that is true within the African-American community. It is also true in Africa and the market I am looking after in China. There are completely different cultures in Africa and in Europe. But they appropriate themselves to the brand. They have it and they enjoy it. It can be during a social moment or a personal moment. But most of the time it’s during a social gathering. It speaks to you and you can connect with certain values and story of the brand. And I know the Kenyan consumer experiences that in their own way.

What is the number one way people drink Hennessy in Kenya?

You can see some trends. Like the strong trends right eg mixology. Of course, we have the consumers who are really into the brown spirits. They are really knowledgeable about it and will drink it neat with ice because that is the purest expression. Then you have the newer generation that is into the art of mixology which takes a lot of trial and error with different ingredients.

How about all over the world?

It is unique in every market. Not only that, it is uniquely different in the same market. You see different trends. It depends on the region, your age and lots of different factors. For example in China, they drink it neat with ice. There is no mixology in China, they do not mix it with soft drinks. It is very old school. It goes very well with Chinese cuisine. In the United States, there is a lot of mixology with a lot of soft drinks as well. In France, it is also old school. So it’s really different. We see trends that help us identify these things. Every year we have a brand tracker that involves asking consumers questions about their drinking habits. It really depends on the age or the culture.

How old are your facilities?

I would say it is a mix. There are those offices that date well into the 20’s and 70’s, then we have the new ones opened up last year so they are pretty modern.

How many bottles do you make a year without going into specific brands?

The official number is 8 million cases and we represent 49% of the cognac market worldwide.

What is your biggest market globally?

The United States of America. The second biggest one is China.

Looking back from where you have come from and now where you are going, what has been Hennessy’s impact through the ages?

We are very proud of what we have done.We hope that we have given pleasure to other people. Even some famous writer and musicians acknowledge Hennessy.

Any famous people who have acknowledged drinking Hennesy?

We had people who came to visit Hennessy that have consumed some. I can tell you that we had to bring a certain amount of Hennessy to The Élysée Palace. This is because whiskey is not allowed and the guests consumed Hennessy.

There are a lot of brands that have come from France eg wine, champagne etc, where would you rate Hennessy?

In France, the leading industry is the aviation industry than the luxury industry like wines and spirits. The aviation industry is worth more in terms of value. Then you need to export more product than you would the aviation industry.

You said that your Cognac sells more than champagne?

Yes, Hennessy sells more than champagne.

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