By BRUCE DENNILL
As I sit down with Great Domaines CEO Derek Kilpin outside the company office in Melrose in Johannesburg, there’s a flyover – three Harvards in close formation. Seconds later, a branch from a nearby tree crashes to the ground alongside my car, parked just a few paces away. It’s a dramatic start to an otherwise civilised conversation about the introduction of Lanson champagne to the list of exotic drinks the company imports.
“This fits into a gap in our line-up,” says Kilpin, scanning the sky for further unexpected guests. “We try to complement existing stuff, and this is a big brand, not some niche product. And it’s been here before, but the relationships involved didn’t work out.”
So what’s involved in keeping Lanson in focus for South African champagne drinkers?
“Champagne is totally brand-driven,” says Kilpin.
“The guys that market more sell more, so the likes of Moet & Chandon and Verve Clicquot – which we have no involvement with – make up about 75% of sales locally. But for the rest, the market is getting more sophisticated, getting to know about terroir and ageing and all the rest. So we have a situation where people get comfortable with their favourites, and they start buying it and drinking it because of taste, not because they want to show off.”
Lanson packaging features the “Royal Warrant” badge on its packaging – it’s What One Drinks, you know – and is the official champagne of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
“That sort of thing helps,” smiles Kilpin.
“Royalty, tennis – people hear about those links and associate them with a sort of lifestyle they want to be involved in.
Creating an aspirational atmosphere can’t be enough, though, surely?
“I don’t know,” shrugs Kilpin.
“Sales of champagne are on the up – 600 000 bottle annually and consistently rising. More people seem to be drinking, despite the load-shedding, the exchange rates and the rest. I can’t really explain it, but I don’t mind it!
“Actively trying to change drinking habits is another interesting challenge. You can’t go punting this stuff in nightclubs… Basic stuff like good packaging helps, though, especially when buyers don’t really know what they’re after. They want something reassuring.”
The ultimate goal here is to find the champagne sweet spot in the South African arena; the people who love bubbly to the extent that they drink it as an aperitif and respect the culture built up over a quarter of a millennium at the brand’s base near Reims in France.
“Alternatively,” grins Kilpin, “we’ll take orders for those huge parties that make the news, or the contracts for those over-the-top government events. Let’s see what happens.”