It’s Black History Month. This annual celebration of achievements by the black Americans also known as National African American History Month is generally dedicated to recognising the central role of African Americans in United States history and if there is one drink which has played an equally central role in the growth of the African American community, that drink is Hennessy.
The middle-aged African American of today will more often than not identify the legendary centuries-old cognac brand as one they have known since childhood because grandpa drank the dark liquor often, and the one that saw them through college while they were still one of the cool ones. While men are typically seen drinking cognac in black culture, women also indulge in the adult beverage and even with cognac coming in a variety of labels such as Martell and Remy Martin, Hennessy is the most popular cognac in African American History. Thus, it’s become synonymous with hip-hop music and African Americans. But where did this trend come from in the first place?
Most articles seem to agree that rap head Busta Rhymes’ song “Pass the Courvoisier” is the historical marker of the time when cognac consumption in the Black American community reached its peak, but this isn’t true. Busta Rhymes wasn’t doing anything new. Black Americans had been “passing” the cognac for decades before the single came out early in the new millennium, and they were doing it because Hennessy was one of the first spirit brands to devote all resources in the minority audience.
Cognac was born in the southwest region of France when Dutch sailors needed ways to carry their wine along with them on long voyages. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the “new burnt wine” was being regularly exported to Asia, America, England and Holland. Slate has revealed in a recent article that African Americans first documented consumption of cognac while travelling through France as World War II raged.
After the war, Hennessy targeted black publications – a rare and risky gamble, considering the time. This was the 1950s and Hennessy was one of the first brands to feature adverts with black models in the famous Ebony and Jets magazines. But the company didn’t stop there. It was also a leader in hiring Black Americans in ranks of leadership. During the height the United States’ civil rights movement, in 1963, Hennessy brought on 1942 bronze medal Olympian Herb Douglass and he was with the company for more than three decades, serving as Vice President of Urban Market Development. Douglass was merely the third African American to reach the level of vice president of a major national corporation.
Could Hennessy have foreseen a market now often referred to as “the most brand-loyal” with a buying power of $1.2 trillion in 2015? Well, it certainly made the moves required to achieve these. With generations since, it’s seemed a natural progression as the trend continued into the 1990s and 2000s.
The West Africans disseminated information using music even before slavery. The West African “griot”, a storyteller, singer, musician and historian kept records of the village’s events and passed the stories to the next generation. When slavery came, music was used not only to preserve history but to send messages of freedom and of obtaining the freedom. The words in Black American songs have always carried so much weight, and today, Hennessy is mentioned in countless songs by famed artists like Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Dr Dre, Kanye West, 50 Cent and many more. This kind of product placement or endorsement is priceless. It’s worked so well because those of us who listen to hip-hop are attracted to glamorous parts of our favourite artists’ lifestyle and liquor is a part of that.
Hennessy has continued to embrace and capitalise on the influence the hip-hop artists are having over the fans. For example, in 2015, to celebrate its 250th anniversary, Hennessy named legendary hip-hop artist Nas its brand ambassador. Since Hennessy’s success in this niche, rap artists and their lyrics have become a key marketing strategy for targeting mainstream America. LL Cool J featured in that Gap commercial in 1997, and most notably, Pusha T wrote McDonald’s famous “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle. Poindexter has reported that strategic endorsement or song mention from a hip-hop artist can translate into higher sales for a brand or company. Apparently, the urban culture icons attract a diverse millennial generation that grew up on rap music.
Today in United States, the black community’s buying power is expected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020. Any brand not considering this audience certainly won’t be doing its best in the market. To be successful in this market, they will all need to follow Hennessy’s lead.