The toast of Chinese liquors, baijiu, is becoming an international luxury brand thanks to a dedicated Frenchman. Cyril Camus, president of the fifth-generation Camus Cognac that began its distillery in 1863, slowly fell in love with the drink of Chinese heritage.
Camus says, “I was fortunate enough to live in China in the mid-1990s for a number of years. Going out to dinner with my friends as well as some business partners, I started being offered Moutai and that’s when I first developed a taste for it. That’s also when I started to develop an interest in the brand’s history and its qualities.”
In 2005, Camus Cognac partnered with China Kweichow Moutai Distillery Co, a leading producer of baijiu, to market the Chinese white liquor globally. Camus will not reveal global figures but he insists, “From zero to one of the top 15 luxury brands of spirits around the world, we have started achieving some results on Moutai’s internationalization but we know it is a long-term job to make it widely recognized by Westerners.”
The first challenge this partnership faced was in marketing. Camus grappled with how to make baijiu appealing to Western consumers, many of whom had no associations with baijiu or, even worse, bad experiences with the formidable drink. To disassociate the drink from bad preconceived notions, the partnership developed a special blend of baijiu specifically for the Western market — Small Batch Blend Moutai. Keeping Moutai’s signature bottle, Camus altered the label to make it more appealing and informative for a Western buyer.
To make the beverage accessible to everyone, the partners set about placing Small Batch Blend Moutai in what Ji Keliang, honorary chairman and chief technical adviser of Kweichow Moutai, calls “the windows into the world of luxury”: the duty-free markets.
Ji says, “The duty-free exposure offered an incomparable platform for Moutai – thousands of high-end and high-spending travelers who are exposed to such a small and saturated shopping space come up close with Moutai’s presence, which is likely to allow the brand to have maximum impact on the international market.”
The partners also took a more grassroots approach to marketing: they educated Western consumers in the stores. “We have our own staff in the shops talking about the history of Moutai, detailing how it is produced and explaining why it is a national heritage of China and the soul of this liquor,” Camus says.
Even with all of this effort, it still took awhile to get the project off the ground. “The sales were not very high at the beginning. I remember a time when I was receiving the monthly reports and we were counting the number of bottles, not cases. It was hard because non-Chinese consumers still had not heard very much of the brand, because the promoters were not used to it and all that took time,” says Camus. Different drinking habits and more choices limit sales of Moutai outside of China.
Once a few stores started to do well, interest in the liquor began to spread from Asia to Europe and the United States. Kweichow Moutai plans to increase production to about 100,000 tons this year from 60,000 tons in 2011. The company’s sales increased by 58% in 2011 to 18.4 billion yuan ($2.92 billion).
According to the company, biajiu sales continue to grow. Camu says, “We believe it’s an exciting challenge. We can make a brand so famous and iconic in its home and then get recognition in the rest of the world.”
photo credit: moutai usa