‘Brandolatry’ – or the ‘worship of brands’ – seems like a remarkably modern concept but the term was coined by William Hudson, a nineteenth century wine merchant and champagne expert who was an astute – if sometimes rather under-handed – publicist in the years 1868-1897.
The particular focus of his campaign against ‘brandolatry’ (which by the end of the century had made it into the press in both the USA and New Zealand) was champagne. Hudson campaigned vigorously against the ‘tyranny’ of the major brands, arguing that consumers should taste before they buy and then purchase on ‘opinion’ rather than ‘prejudice’. His firm sold – with limited success – a brand of champagne called ‘O.N.P’ (for ‘Opinion not Prejudice’) and, at various exhibitions in the early 1880s he set up tasting rooms where consumers were introduced to blind tasting from blue glasses. These were a decidedly new development in the stuffy world of nineteenth century wine retailing – again the trade disapproved, saying the verdict had ‘no practical value’ but conceding that ‘some of the shippers whose brands were submitted probably attach importance to the advertisement thus afforded them.’
The consumers could also taste brandy and claret blind. In the 1880s, Hudson attempted to undercut the dominant firm of W. & A. Gilbey (responsible for selling nearly 1 in 10 of every bottle of wine in the UK during the second half of the nineteenth century) who had a hugely successful range of ‘1s a bottle’ wines including claret, port, sherry and Hungarian wine. Hudson’s short-lived 9d per bottle clarets were regarded with suspicion, though the newspapers grudgingly ‘gave them credit for their assertions that the wines are of foreign manufacture and the pure juice of the grape’.
In 1881 he launched another champagne brand – Veuve Monnier et ses fils. This name (which Hudson claimed was a pure invention) was first brought to wider public notice (after it had been bought by a speculator and floated as a public company) by a series of stunts. A gang of boys were sent out to collect the used champagne corks from Ascot and Henley and the results of this piece of ‘market research’ were written up in a popular journal. Out of the 167 corks collected at Henley, ‘the leading brand, strange to say, was Veuve Monnier’. ‘Verily, commented the trade journal in sarcastic mode, we are in the hands of the future’, observing sagely that ‘the possibility of rigging the market [is] too patent to need any comment’. Private trade tastings that gave Veuve Monnier a good write-up were widely publicised – to the dismay of the unwitting participants. Perhaps deliberately, Veuve Monnier was never placed first. Usually it seemed to come second or third behind the much more expensive premier brands of the day
Veuve Monnier Ltd. failed spectacularly in the mid 1890s and both the promoter of the company and Hudson went on trial. Both, somehow, were found not guilty after the judge evidently despaired of understanding the intricacies of the champagne trade and what exactly constituted an order and when and how the revenue might be booked to company profits.
Hudson, unabashed, continued to write to the trade journals, promote reforms to bottle sizes and attack the champagne houses’ practice of paying waiters in restaurants and hotels for branded corks. The going rate was between 2d-8d per cork.
His earliest PR stunt had been a ‘musical circular’ which, according to the leading wine trade journal of the day, ‘appropriated’ a champagne song from Satanella (a romantic opera composed by Michael Balfe in the 1850s or 1860s). The trade press had taken a rather sniffy view of this, saying that the wine trade as too smart to be ‘led astray by such claptrap’ but Hudson continued to argue for better advertising of wine. What, wine merchants should do, he said, was to take a leaf from the temperance movement: ‘the armies of the Blue Ribbon and the Salvation enthusiasts do not so neglect their opportunities as not to notify by every known and unknown method for obtaining publicity the fact of their having a medal or a prayer to offer for the good of their fellow-Christians’.
What greater tribute to the temperance cause could be offered – coming from the best wine publicist of the nineteenth century?
PS.His Veuve Monnier brand survives to this day and gets good reviews as a low-price champagne…