On Friday nights, after a long week, all roads lead to Adetokunbo Ademola, Wuse 2 for Nosike Nwigene. Mr Nwigene and his friends join many other Abuja residents at Club Cubana to unwind to music, dance, and alcohol. In between the sticky bodies and blaring speakers, club-goers guzzle down drinks to ease the stress and tension of the past week.
And there’s one drink you will find more often than the others: Hennessy.
Hennessy culture isn’t confined to Club Cubana; many Nigerians drink it daily. Queen Aigbe, a Lagos-based medical practitioner and one of Nigeria’s many Hennessy lovers, tells me that drinking Hennessy is pretty much a way of life for Nigerians. And she is correct. Nigerians love Hennessy – also affectionately known as Henny – so much that the country is among the top ten largest markets for Hennessy in the world.
In a sense, the popularity of a luxury drink like Hennessy in Nigeria, a country with half its population living under $2 a day and where many cannot afford a decent meal, is bizarre. After all, the cheapest bottle of Hennessy in most places in Lagos goes for around ₦4,895. Yet, millions of bottles are sold each year.
Why so popular?
Nosike, who has been drinking Hennessy since 2008, believes that the cognac was made popular by pop culture. “Back then, a lot of people associated with Henny because their favourite African-American rappers were rapping about the drink. There was also the Tupac and Biggie factor,” he reminds me.
He has a point.
Whether its NYC-bred Nas exhorting, “Who got the Phillies? Take this Hennessy. Aiyyo Don!” in the intro of his critically acclaimed Illmatic album or the posthumously released Hennessy by Tupac Shakur, Hip Hop has always reserved a special place for the French cognac. In turn, fans have always been attracted to the alluring parts of their favourite artists’ lifestyles, and with a generation of Nigerians so heavily influenced by African-American music, it’s no surprise that they picked up the Hennessy culture.
Moët Hennessy, the owners of the Hennessy, have latched on to this appeal. In 2009, they launched a Collector bottle in honour of President Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. President, called Hennessy VS 44.
From the mid-90s, African-American pop culture fed into the Nigerian youth culture, and though its influence may have waned slightly, it still shapes trends. Here, people follow the crowd, and many drink Henny because everyone else seems to be doing so.
Queen says she was not old enough to understand Hip Hop when the popular artists started rapping about Hennessy but grew up drinking it because everyone around her seemed to relate to the trend. “While my brothers and parents drink Hennessy because Snoop Dogg or Kanye West used to, I don’t. I drink it because I grew up watching my family drink it,” she tells me.
Chijioke Silva, a bar owner in Rivers State, also acknowledges the bandwagon effect. “Sometimes, people can't point out the exact reason they like Hennessy. I've had conversations where people admit purchasing the drink because it's what everybody else is doing,” he reveals.
Regardless of the motive, Hennessy VS seems to be the most popular type on the street. Chijioke asserts that more people order for VS because it is cheaper than other types. “Henny VS is what sells out the most for me. I sell the 35cl bottle for a little over ₦4,500. It is what these young boys come here to drink at night,” he says with a smile. The likes of V.S.O.P and X.O are more expensive and sometimes out of the range of the average drinker.
Those at the higher spectrum of the income chain, however, have the luxury of buying X.O, which costs about ₦65,000. For Nosike, this luxury comes once in a while when he is with older cousins. “They earn more than I do so we all pool cash and buy X.O,” he tells me. “When I am alone or with friends within the same income bracket, we buy VS and V.S.O.P,” he asserts.
The local appeal of an international brand
Hennessy officially entered the Nigerian market in 2001, when Moët Hennessy opened an office in Ikoyi, Lagos. Previously, Nigerians enjoyed Hennessy because it was distributed by independent merchants who imported the product, according to Maria Martinez, Managing Director of Luxeria Spirits. “They travelled, liked the drink and decided to bring it in themselves. The Hennessy team later took an interest in the market after noticing how well their product was doing in Nigeria,” she adds.
The Hennessy team is tight-lipped about how they managed to penetrate the Nigerian market and assert their dominance. One thing that is clear, however, is that the company is heavily invested in the Nigerian market. Speaking on Hennessy’s success in Nigeria, Bernard Peillon, President of Hennessy, attributed its growth to understanding the market and the needs of consumers. According to him, the company partners with local partners who understand the Nigerian market. “There is no way that I or a team of French people coming into Nigeria can understand it with the same intimacy as if you have a local partner. And that allows us to decipher and understand the specifics of a market like Nigeria.”
The team has also embraced and capitalised on the influence hip-hop artists in Nigeria have over fans. In 2017, Timaya, Falz, and Ycee were signed as brand ambassadors. Chijioke tells me that Hennessy retains its appeal because of the artists associated with the brand. “I remember when Timaya became an ambassador. People came to the bar to order Hennessy to celebrate that,” he highlights.
Hennessy artistry, an annual concert aimed at fusing music, art, and culture in the country, is another way the brand latches on to Nigeria’s pop culture. For Maria, a concert around promoting Hennessy through infusing creative talent is the most interesting part of the brand’s strategy. “I love that Hennessy is embracing the music culture. Nigerian music has grown so well, and it’s very refreshing to see that Hennessy embraces it,” she comments.
Here to stay
From all indications, Hennessy is here to stay.
Even as rivals such as Remy Martin and Martell creep up on the scene, dislodging Hennessy from the throne will be a hard ask. Remy Martin, for example, has a long history of partnering with artists, and there have been collaborations with celebrities like Falz, Noble Igwe, Dj Jimmy Jatt, and Zainab Balogun in the past.
But Henny’s first-mover advantage may have secured it a permanent status as Nigeria’s premier drink, despite the best marketing effort of its competitors. Being the first to hit the Nigerian market, the brand has a competitive edge over others as it occupies a significant portion of the market.
Nosike finds the thought of anyone displacing Hennessy in the Nigerian market amusing. “Anybody that wants to kick Hennessy out of the market is fighting a generational war,” he says matter-of-factly.
Again, he has a point. For many drinkers, buying a bottle of Henny is like buying a packet of Indomie. Nobody goes to the store asking for noodles, most people straight up ask for Indomie.
Nigerians are die-hard fans of anything they want to be. When they start doing something, it automatically becomes uncool to do any other thing. Looking around Club Cubana, nearly everyone is drinking Henny. Here, everyone wants to look cool.
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