The scene: Two women dance on top of a bar, as an arm suddenly slides a bottle under their legs and straight into the hands of rapper P. Diddy.
The bottle is unlabeled, but its shape and the reddish-orange liquid inside make it look suspiciously like the high-end French cognac Courvoisier XO Imperial.
And if there's any doubt, repeated images of the bottle and its contents are accompanied by the constant musical refrain: "Pass the Courvoisier."
No, it's not a commercial for Courvoisier, but a music video for Pass the Courvoisier, the latest single from rapper Busta Rhymes featuring P. Diddy. The song, whose lyrics are too racy to be published on a family Web site, has made it to No. 5 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles charts, while the video is among the ones viewers can vote as their favorite on MTV's Total Request Live.
It's also a by-product of companies like Courvoisier's successful efforts to reach out to hip, urban consumers, a demographic that is growing in number, buying power and influence.
Spokesmen for Rhymes and the liquor company emphasized that Courvoisier had nothing to do with the recording of the song. Representatives from the rapper's label, J Records, said Rhymes was inspired to make the single simply because he likes the drink.
"While we're flattered that Busta Rhymes recorded "Pass the Courvoisier," we didn't pay him to do it," says Jack Shea, spokesman for Allied Domecq, the London-based spirits and restaurant conglomerate which owns the Courvoisier label.
But having a brand name as part of the title of a very popular song and video is a marketing coup for the cognac maker as it tries to reach an urban demographic, say industry watchers.
The economic force of urban consumers, a multicultural group made up mostly of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, has been steadily expanding. Minorities' buying power was estimated at $860.6 billion in 2001, almost twice that of 1990, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.
What's more, the demographic itself is growing. By 2050, people of Asian, Hispanic and African-American origin are expected to represent 48 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 29 percent in 1999, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.
"For the most part, marketers have not paid attention to these markets; now it would be economic suicide not to," says Jerome D. Williams, director of the Center for Marketplace Diversity at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Preaching to the Hip
It's not the first time that a brand-name liquor has made it into the lyrics of a rap song.
Rapper Snoop Dogg mentioned Seagram's and Tanqueray in a hit called Gin and Juice back in 1993. And Hennessy, a brand owned by luxury goods group LVMH, is another drink commonly mentioned in songs by artists such as Pink and Ja Rule.
Courvoisier has also figured prominently for the past couple of years in the Saturday Night Live skit and movie The Ladies Man, in which comedian Tim Meadows woos the ladies with scented candles and a snifter of the cognac.
To spread the buzz about their products to a larger group of people, some upscale alcohol producers are building their brands among key trend setters in order to reach out to a larger group of people.
"It's a strategy of planting a message using what we call key influencers, and it is incredibly effective," says Chip Martella, partner at Westport, Conn.-based brand marketing firm Fusion 5. "If you can effectively create your brand and come up with a salient message that's compelling for the key influencer, it's proven that you can slowly begin to effect the larger community."
Almost two years ago, Courvoisier hired advertising agency dRush, a joint venture between music mogul Russell Simmons and Deutsche Advertising agency in New York to embark on a campaign to cement its premium cognacs among fashionable, hip, young urban adults. That campaign included fashionable ads in magazines such as Essence, Vibe, GQ and InStyle.
Courvoisier has also been sponsoring events featuring up and coming R&B acts such as Sunshine Anderson and Musiq Soulchild, which are held in nightclubs and have Courvoisier drink promotions around the them, says Allied Domecq's Shea.
"Cognac had an image that had gotten a little bit stodgy and it was seen as a drink consumed by older men in a snifter sitting in their dinner jackets, with a cigar in a paneled room," says Shea. "What we noticed was that there was a trend toward using cognac as more of a mixed drink."
Pass the Buzz
Cognac maker Hennessy has also been reaching out to this market by building their brand in the entertainment industry and urban markets. Like Courvoisier, Hennessy does not solicit the numerous mentions it has gotten in songs.
"We don't pursue it," says Larry Griefer, vice president of entertainment marketing for wine and spirits importer Schieffelin & Somerset, which is co-owned by LVMH and British spirits maker Diageo. "It's just that the brand is such a revered one within that community."
Griefer says he tries to foster positive word-of-mouth within the entertainment community by holding private tastings or offering to host events like a Hennessy dessert party in someone's home.
No money is exchanged for these events and there are no expectations that an entertainer has to give something back to the company in return, he says. But the goal, to build brand loyalty through this relationship marketing, can be very valuable.
"In this industry, I feel very strongly about word of mouth," says Griefer. "That's your greatest marketing tool. It becomes something that is more impactful when you have that third party endorsement."
Of course, few entertainers will write a song about their favorite drink, making a brand name reference in a popular song a rare occurrence, notes Bernard Trueblood, who has done marketing for brands such as Johnnie Walker and Tanqueray and is president of Fairfield, Conn.-based marketing firm BHT Communications.
"It's great marketing for any liquor company," says Trueblood. "If you think about what it takes to get a song written with a name in the title, get someone to record, get someone to play it and make it a hit … ."
Trueblood himself had one of his alcohol brands sung about in the early 1980s, when he was working with tequila maker Jose Cuervo. The drink was mentioned prominently in a country western song sung by Shelly West, the chorus of which ("Jose Cuervo you are a friend of mine; I like to drink you with a little salt and lime") he says was more valuable than any marketing effort of his own.
"We wanted to take credit for that so bad," he says, laughing.
Cultivating a hip image among today's tastemakers may be beneficial for alcohol marketers. But some critics worry that young people might be overexposed to these messages, especially with heavy rotation of songs on the radio or on MTV.
"There's no question that [Pass the Courvoisier] will help to stir the imagination of young people about Courvoisier, and sort of implant the notion that Courvoisier is the way to party," says George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit education and advocacy organization that focuses on food and beverage safety.
Alcohol industry insiders counter that artists have a right to sing about whatever they want, even if it is only appropriate for an audience of 21 and up.
"The First Amendment supports artistic freedom," says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry group based in Washington, D.C. "If people want to mention our product, more power to them."
Hacker says he is not in favor of censorship, but suggests that artists who sing about alcohol or portray alcohol in a glamorous light also talk publicly about the risks related to alcohol abuse.
Others note that while these songs or videos can be extremely popular, whether or not they influence people to go out and buy a product is another matter.
"You have to make a distinction between liking something and going out and buying something," says Williams. "There's no question that these characters are influential. … influential in doing what is the question."