Cristal getting bad rap

Jay Z imposes ban on `racist' bubbly

July 4, 2006
Toronto Star
By Marcus Franklin (AP)

NEW YORK—A few weeks ago, rap entrepreneur Jay-Z announced he was boycotting Cristal at his clubs after the Champagne company's president indicated he wasn't thrilled about the brand's association with hip-hop culture — comments that the rapper called ``racist.''

But what about the many other high-end brands whose names constantly appear in rap lyrics? Do they embrace the free publicity or cringe at it? It depends on which company you ask.

Mercedes-Benz — the most-mentioned brand in last year's top songs — says the car's popularity in hip-hop circles certainly didn't hurt sales growth over the last dozen years.

Cadillac, which lost some lustre in the 1980s and '90s, credits its turnaround, in part, to the popularity of the Escalade among rappers and other celebrities. Moet Hennessy USA said the wine and liquor company is "thrilled" about its affiliation with hip hop. Bentley Motors and Louis Vuitton — also among the most name-checked brands in music — were more reticent on the subject.

While some companies may shy away from being associated with a culture often marked by misogyny and violence, it is undeniable that hip hop wields immeasurable power and influence in the marketplace.

Aspirational in some respects and synonymous with youth culture, hip hop has been credited for having an impact on everything from clothing to cars.

But periodically, hip hop's chief arbiters — like Jay-Z — turn on brands because of slights, real or perceived, to their culture.

Pepsi agreed in 2003 to give $3 million (U.S.) to charity after Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons threatened a boycott in response to Pepsi dropping an endorsement deal with rapper Ludacris that had been criticized by conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly.

Designer Tommy Hilfiger was dogged for years by rumours that he spoke out on the Oprah Winfrey Show against minorities buying his clothes. His company denied the entire episode ever happened, but the line never quite regained the same popularity in hip hop.

Lucian James, an executive with a branding agency that tracks mentions of products in Billboard's Top 20, warned that in a fast-changing marketplace, luxury brands in particular must constantly capture "new" customers.

James said Cristal put itself at serious risk of losing new clientele because of the comments made by Frederic Rouzaud, head of Champagne Louis Roederer — a 230-year-old French company that makes the bubbly.

In a recent issue of The Economist magazine, Rouzaud said the company viewed the affection for its champagne from rappers and their fans with "curiosity and serenity.''

Asked if the association between Cristal and the ``bling lifestyle" could be detrimental, Rouzaud replied: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.''

Jay-Z, who has made numerous references to Cristal throughout his career, pulled the Champagne from his sports lounges, where bottles sold for $450 and $600. And, at a concert this week at Radio City Music Hall, the Def Jam Recordings president omitted ``Cristal" from some of his lyrics.

Noel Hankin of Moet Hennessy USA, which markets Hennessy, Dom Perignon and Belvedere among other drinks, said his company welcomes being associated with rap.

"We appreciate that business. We want it. It's critical to our business success," Hankin said.