Each month I give my verdict on who has shown the world an interesting and distinctive brand. This month, I decided to do things a little differently by collaborating with the fabulous Paula Gardner of Scarlet Thinking on a very unique piece!
My latest personal brand of the month goes to…
The First Ladies of Fizz
This festive brand of the month is distributed amongst the women behind some of the biggest brands of Champagne. You may know the Champagne brands, but many people are completely unaware that the forces behind some of the biggest Champagne names – Bollinger, Laurent Perrier, Pommery and Clicquot – were all widows, propelled into strong personal brands for the sake of their livelihood.
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—-unless I’m thirsty.”
The words of dame Lily Bollinger illustrate some of my favourite attributes of showing off a personal brand: living it at all times, and having fun with it…and doesn’t she sound like fun?
Dame Lily was far from a passive participant in the family business, but after her husband Jacques died in 1941, during the occupation of France, she took control and got involved in every aspect of the brand, from tending the vines themselves to the marketing of the brand.
While it’s easy to assume that producing Champagne means a life of glamour and bubbles, the history of Bollinger proved quite different. During the occupation, Lily and her husband Jacques were forced out of their family home and estate and over 178,000 bottles of Champagne were seized by the Nazis. Eventually, the invaders demanded that they return to the estate and making wine, a demand which allowed Lily and Jacques to free many of the estate’s workers from prison camp to go back to working in the vineyards: Champagne is a life saver in more ways than one!
Lily, or “Madame Jacques”, was only 42 when her husband died, and she was thrust into running this famous brand. Known for her charm and grace, she enforced the high standards that have carried Bollinger through tough times and into being one of the best- known Champagne brands today. Her work afforded her joys of foreign travel and creativity (she created her own blend, Bollinger R.D. cuvee). Interestingly, she managed to impress her own high morals on the house, refusing to bow to popular demand and produce a Rosé as it is was associated with high-end brothels. The house honoured her wishes until 2007.
Lily Bollinger objected to producing a rosé because it was drunk in brothels.
It would have been easy for one’s identity to become consumed by running a successful business but Dame Lily still managed to retain a individual personal brand, also remembered for cycling through the countryside on a Peugot.
Dame Lily on her Peugot bicycle
Hailing from an entirely different century, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, or the Widow Cliquot, also became a widow at a young age. In her case it was 1805 and Barbe-Niciole was 27. There is some controversy over whether her husband Francois’ death was suicide over the bad state of the business, or typhoid, ironically treated with Champagne at that time. Whatever the cause of death, her widowhood gave a name to the business – Veuve is French for widow.
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known as the Widow Cliquot, by Léon Cogniet
The resilience behind Barbe-Nicole’s personal brand was likely shaped early in life. She had lived through the French Revolution and even had to be rescued from the Royal Convent where she was studying at the time.
The widow Clicquot was also quite business savvy; she narrowed down the House’s interests, dropping their other involvements and side-products and concentrating on Champagne production: a risky decision during an era where Champagne was out of fashion. It had previously been sought after as the preferred drink of the King’s mistress, Madame Pompador. However, she breathed new life into the brand, finding a new market in Russia and adding her distinctive touch: the bright yellow label. She also came up with the VCP motto, “Only one quality: the finest”.
Widow Cliquot on the cork, fab personal branding!
Just like Dame Lily, the widow Clicquot became completely involved in the business. She not only became France’s first businesswoman, but one of the first women in modern history to take the helm of an internationally renowned commercial empire. She invented rosé Champagne and the modern bottle-shape still used today. She also invented the revolutionary process of Remuage, or “riddling” Champagne, turning and tipping each bottle by hand every day so that the sediment moves into the neck of the bottle for easy removal, thus preventing it from stagnating and clouding the drink. Even though the process is often automated today, her legacy still lives on.
Unlike Dame Lily, Madame Clicquot balanced building a business with motherhood, and the estate passed down to her great granddaughter on her death. Biographers point out that without her widowhood, Clicquot may have remained in the shadows, as women – single or married – were not accepted in business at that time. Only by your husband’s death were you liberated! The Veuve Clicqout Award, created in 1972, celebrates women managers and leaders and is a fitting legacy for such a figure.
A stone marker at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin vineyard in the village of Verzy
Madame Pommery, or Jeanne Alexandrine Louise Melin, born in 1857, would no doubt have been inspired by the success of the widow Clicquot, and that must have played some part in her guiding Pommery to the success it is today.
Madame Pommery’s husband Alexandre Pommery died when her youngest child Louise was less than a year old. With a young family to bring up, Madame Pommery had no choice but to take her business seriously. Having gone to boarding school in England, she decided to use what she knew and aimed at the English market. She worked on formulating luxury brand by concentrating on marketing and building Pommery’s image. Her legacy to Champagne is introducing the dry or sec Champagne in catering to the English market (she invented Brut champagne for Queen Victoria), and by doing so, shaped the way we drink Champagne today.
Madame Pommery also embraced one of my favourite personal branding qualities: social responsibility. She treated her staff well and founded an orphanage and maternity programme.
Interestingly, she also ran the first house to open its doors to visitors to the Champagne Reims and as such launched Champagne tourism, a huge industry even now.
Laurent-Perrier is our other Champagne house with a history of strong women. The story begins in 1887, when Mathilde Emilie Perrier, widowed at the age of 35, took the helm of her husband’s Champagne business to keep it alive. She was known for making difficult business decisions and establishing the Laurent-Perrier brand to ensure the house’s survival. Fast forward to Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt, who met her husband during WW1, when she was his nurse, but was widowed shortly after. She left her family Champagne house, Lanson Pere et Fils, to take over the almost dead-in-the-water Laurent Perrier in 1938. She poured her life savings into the business to build a future for herself and her two sons.
On one level Marie-Louise’s story is one of painstakingly building up the Laurent Perrier brand, on another it is a tragic story of a mother who had to see her son, Maurice, sent to a German concentration camp for being a member of the Resistance, and later hearing of his death there. Her other son, Bernardde Nonancourt, who died recently, took on the brand after the death of his brother and was recognised as being a much-loved and larger than life figure in the modern Champagne industry. Today, the house is back in the hands of women, Marie-Louise’s granddaughters, Alexandra and Stéphanie, both of whom are members of the management board. The women carry the house’s heritage of quality, expertise and elegance, and continue to write one of the greatest success stories of women and Champagne.
The tenacious women who held the Laurent-Perrier house together through considerable adversity, including two World Wars
Our Champagne widows were so successful that dozens of Champagnes added ‘Veuve’ to their names even in the absence of any widow running their house, just for added intrigue and commercial value. Now that’s some powerful personal branding!