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How To Build A Timeless Brand: 3 Lessons From Hennessy

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It's said you die twice.

The first time is when you're soul leaves your body. The second time is when someone says your name for the last time. Some experience the latter a lot sooner than others. Which leads to my big question: what exists today that will be remembered in 250 years?

A good starting point is to ask yourself the inverse.

Who from around 250 years ago do you still know of? From a Western perspective, there's figures like Washington and Franklin. All of the Founding Fathers. Then there's Mozart and Bach. These figures all had a tremendous impact on human history. It's only natural that one would have to make an equal or greater impact to be remembered for such a long time.

Bill Gates, much like Andrew Carnegie, will probably be remembered more so for his tremendous philanthropic efforts then anything else. Buzz Aldrin, like the late Neil Armstrong, will certainly be remembered. There's President Obama and potentially Elon Musk if he can get us to the moon. Steve Jobs perhaps. Stephen Hawking. Richard Dawkins.

It's a short list.

The list is even shorter for brands and companies. Ames, the tools company founded in 1774 by Captain John Ames, is one of the few that comes to mind. Another, State Street Bank, which has $2.4 trillion assets under management, has been around since 1792. But I'd be willing to wager most people aren't too familiar with these companies. Then there's the exception.


With the advent of the information age, virtually every industry on earth has evolved in some way. Most have flourished and the spirits market is no exception.

In 2014 the Distilled Spirits Council President and CEO Peter H. Cressy said "In the U.S. market, strong consumer interest in cocktails, along with continuing market access and modernization improvements, is providing the industry with a solid base for future growth."

With this surge in competition, you'd imagine the older brands would be scrambling to regain market share. Not Hennessy. They continue to produce 40% of all the world's Cognac supply.

Founded in 1765, the world's largest Cognac producer has stood the test of time almost with ease. To learn more about this timelessness I spoke with Rodney Williams, former Senior Vice President of Hennessy USA and current Executive Vice President of Spirit Brands at Moët Hennessy USA.

"Hennessy strongly believes in the notion of learning from one's past and heritage to inform one's legacy and future." he said. "Our legacy is built on the collaboration and shared passion of two families - Hennessy and Fillioux -- which uphold our brand values generation after generation."

Maurice Hennessy, Global Maison Brand Ambassador, is the eighth generation of the Hennessy family. The Fillioux family has been blending Hennessy Cognac for seven generations. They've been involved in the beginning and have ensured the company has maintained a central focus.

As a staunch advocate for millennial entrepreneurship (and an entrepreneur myself), the campaign of "never stop, never settle" struck a cord with me. It's what led to my conversation with Rodney. As it turns out, entrepreneurship is and always has played a big part at Hennessy. They're guided by "an entrepreneurial spirit that ever challenges us to find ways to delight and inspire our consumers." he explained.

But as with most large companies today, reaching millennials has proven to be a challenge. But here is another big component to the brand's timelessness: education, focusing on the long term and fostering peer to peer referrals.

"Once consumers are educated on Hennessy and interact with the brand, they love it. It's making certain that the education is done in a relevant and compelling fashion that is necessary to long term brand adoption."

So, what are the takeaways for would-be brand builders in it for the long haul?

1. Understand fluid dynamics. Over the course of a hundred years (or two) there's bound to be disruption. Markets change. Trends shift. Some industries rise, others fall. The key is to derive relevance from the disruption. Hennessy hasn't fought against the constantly changing markets and technologies, it's flowed with them, leveraging their power to educate consumers in new ways. Which leads to the next point..

2. Educate. Don't sell.. We react defensively to sales pitches. It's damn near instinct to distrust salespeople. But when you educate instead you alleviate fear without even trying. Even if the sale doesn't happen then, the prospect will walk away with a positive experience which positions you better in the long run.

3. Don't be all things to all people. Don't subscribe to the common notion that more is better. If you're loyal to everyone, you're loyal to no one. Focus all your time and attention on one project. Be extraordinary in one area instead of spreading yourself thin. A wider net catches more fish, but not more customers. It's no coincidence that some of the most valuable companies in the world, from Apple to Coca-Cola, and of course Hennessy, have a single area of focus.

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