Customer Service: Is Ignoring Better Than Ignorance? Hip-Hop Consumers & Brand Growth
Hip-hop and Vuitton’s attitudes toward diverse customers are completely opposite from that of Cristal, a champagne produced by another French-owned luxury brand. You may never have the good fortune to have a rapper as a fan, but there are times when unexpected or surprising people may reach out. How do you plan to respond when it happens? Are you open to them? Is your staff trained to deal with unusual requests? Is your definition of your customer so rigid that you’ll be blind when something that looks different from that definition walks through your door (or appears in your e-mail inbox)?
Cristal, produced by Louis Roederer, became infamous in the entertainment community because its management made illadvised, unnecessary comments about not being pleased with the attention its champagne was getting from rappers. It alienated consumers unnecessarily, and didn’t score itself points with any constituency by doing so. In 2006, The Economist asked the company’s new managing director, Frederic Rouzaud, whether associations with rap stars could affect the brand negatively. “That’s a good question, but what can we do?” he said. “We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” This not-too-subtle dig was well understood in the hip-hop world and other communities. He may as well have told the reporter that the company wished hip-hop consumers would go to hell.
When rapper Jay-Z heard the comments, he initiated a boycott of the champagne, saying, “It has come to my attention that the managing director of Cristal, Rouzaud, views the hip-hop culture as ‘unwelcome attention.’ I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands, including the 40/40 Club, nor in my personal life.” And with that Rouzard got his wish, along with the prestige this consumer base can bring to a brand.
Rappers were giving Cristal a lot of free PR and promotion in videos highlighting wealth and power, making them synonymous with the product because they genuinely enjoyed it. Why alienate celebrities who make hit music and have huge followings? I’d venture the company’s long-standing, more traditional consumer wasn’t seeing these folks anyway.
If there is a genuine risk that your core consumer will be alienated by a “pop-up” customer who is different from him or her, then I do think you have to be careful. For instance, the “21” Club, a restaurant in the heart of Manhattan, doesn’t want the business of anyone who doesn’t wear a suit jacket and is clear about it, an unusual statement today given the lack of formality in America. However, someone without a suit jacket might alienate more formal diners who have gone out of their way to get dressed up for lunch—even if the jacketless guy had impeccable manners. While the restaurant has recently relaxed its suit-and-tie policy in favour of a suit jacket requirement, the suit-and-tie crowd is an integral part of the “21” Club brand, and the restaurant clearly communicates that message.
On the flip side of the suit story, we represented Philippe Chow, the New York, Los Angeles, and Miami hot-spot restaurant for a number of years. The owner, Stratis Morfogen, is an outspoken, amiable fellow. He has told the story many times of a food journalist for a major publication who came in to cover the restaurant, and was upset when he was seated next to a group dressed in jeans and sweat suits (which included Kanye West). The journalist walked out because he felt an expensive restaurant shouldn’t seat people wearing jeans and sweat suits next to customers wearing three-piece suits. Morfogen didn’t agree—and is clear that while people in three-piece suits are welcome in his place (he seated the guy after all), so is everyone else—and this reporter’s tantrum isn’t going to change that. Different strokes for different folks.
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