Act With Audacity – 5 Marketing Lessons from a French Widow

You may not have heard of Mme. Clicquot. Her story is one of those that is just worth telling a couple of times. It’s a study in determination and resourcefulness and an inspiration to any person with an entrepreneurial inclination. A look at her life also illustrates a few instructive lessons for small business owners and marketers. Read on.

The Back Story

Our story today begins with an arranged marriage. Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe Ponsardin and Philippe Clicquot were neighbors and ran competing textile businesses in the small town of Reims. Both families had come through the French Revolution intact, and the businessmen saw an opportunity to consolidate and grow through a merger of the 18th century variety. In 1798, they married their children Barbe-Nicole and François.
The alliance did not progress as the fathers had planned. The young couple got along famously, but François was not interested in the textile business. Rather, he saw opportunity in the family’s sideline venture of wine exports from the Champagne region. In those days, the area was known for its still white wines, and Philippe had used occasional wine exports to fill out his shipments of textiles.

Lesson One: Invent the Things of Tomorrow

François and Barbe-Nicole were determined to expand the wine business into production, but faced opposition from Phillipe. France was embroiled in a series of wars provoked by Napoleon against surrounding states, and Philippe didn’t see winemaking as a profitable proposition. François thought otherwise and saw an opportunity in a new innovation, sparkling wines.

The bubbly wines of the day were nothing like the champagnes we drink at New Years. Champagne is made by adding yeast and sugar to bottles of white wine, creating what is known as a secondary fermentation. The process had been discovered by the early 1800s, but the wines were considered of low quality – foamy and sugary sweet. Barbe Nicole and her husband set out to change this and create a new market for bubbly wines, but their initial efforts fell flat. In 1805, François fell ill with a fever. He died 12 days later, leaving his widow with a failing business.

Lesson Two: Be Determined and Exacting

Barbe-Nicole was determined to pursue the couple’s dream of a new product, but needed financing for the endeavor. She went to her father-in-law Philippe with a proposal to stake her inheritance against the business. Recognizing her strong intelligence and commitment, Philippe invested, but with conditions. Barbe-Nicole was required to undertake a four year apprenticeship with a well known winemaker who would provide counsel and training to help the struggling business succeed. At the end of the apprenticeship, things were no better. The small company was on the brink of bankruptcy.

 Returning to her father-in-law for additional funding must have been difficult, but Barbe-Nicole knew that she had a product with potential. She had developed a process that is still used by modern champagne makers. Part of the problem with the bubbly wines of the day was sediment. The yeasts used to produce the second fermentation settled to the bottom of the bottles and were difficult to extract. Barbe-Nicole had developed a new bottle design and racks that suspended the bottles upside down. Occasional twisting of the bottles caused the yeast to settle in the narrow neck, where it could be extracted without excess waste. The process, called riddling, also improved the quality, eliminating the beery froth and producing the “sparkly bubbles” that we know today.

To his credit, father-in-law Philippe saw the potential either in his daughter-in-law or her ideas. He invested again, and Barbe-Nicole pressed on. She started a new company, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, which translates roughly as the Widow Clicquot’s champagne.

Lesson Three: Let Your Intelligence Direct Your Life

Mme. Clicquot’s penchant for innovative thinking didn’t stop at the product. Her operations were located in northeastern France, an area that became an intermittent battleground in the 23 years of struggles between Napoleon’s would-be empire and various coalitions of Russians, Prussians, Austrians, confederated German states and others. Mme. Cliquot took a practical, intelligent approach to the disruption. Why should war get in the way of business?

She provided wine for the officers of whichever army happened to be in occupation. It is said that the practice of “sabering” champagne bottles started with the recipients of the widow’s largesse. On horseback and lacking a better way to get into the wine, they held the bottle and the reins in one hand and popped the corks with their sabres’ edge (take a look at the video below for a better idea of the process).

Lesson Four: Go Before Other

As a successful marketing strategy, an attempt to introduce a new product at the royal court of your country’s military adversary wouldn’t seem to have much likelihood of success. Mme. Cliquot was convinced that there was potential for her new product among the Russian aristocracy and wouldn’t give up. Partnering with an enterprising sales agent, Louis Bohne, the widow had obtained a small following among the Russian nobility. After Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, the tsar issued a decree banning the import of bottled French wines, shutting down the widow’s program. Not wanting to lose their foothold, Bohne registered Veuve Clicquot as a coffee merchant and began hiding champagne bottles in barrels of coffee beans for export.

Exporting wine from France during the Napoleonic Wars was no easy task. The British Navy ruled the seas, and maintained a perpetual blockade of French harbors during the early years of the 19th century. On at least one occasion, valuable shipments of wine were lost to the blockade, but the widow continued to take the risks. Anticipating the end of the war, she moved 8,000 bottles of her 1811 vintage to a Baltic port for further shipment to St. Petersburg when possible. She and Bohne beat their competition to the Russian market by months, and managed to introduce her champagne to the court of Tsar Alexander I. As the story goes, the tsar liked the widow’s champagne so much that he declared it to be ” the only kind that he would drink.” With that statement , the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin brand became firmly established in the Russian market and success was insured.

Lesson Five: Act With Audacity

The tales surrounding Barbe-Nicole and her champagne brand are full of audacious acts. She bribed Prussian guards with champagne to get overland shipments across the border, developed a commission sales network in the middle of a war to expand her market presence (on both sides of the lines), and literally created the global market for champagne. But her mere existence as a businesswoman at the beginning of the 19th century was equally audacious. She took advantage of the enlightened notions of the French Revolution and the liberties she was afforded as a widow to run her own show. She never remarried to avoid losing control of her business to a new husband.

Nearing the end of her life, she penned the quotation at the beginning of the story to a great-grandchild. Here it is again, “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”

The audacious Widow Clicquot passed away in 1866 at the age of 89. She never retired. At the time of her death, champagne and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin were known worldwide. The brand and it’s signature yellow label still exist today, purchased in 1986 by Louis Vitton – Möet-Hennesy. In 2010, several bottles of 170 year old Veuve Clicquot were recovered from a Baltic Sea shipwreck. The wine was perfectly preserved and sold for over $18,000/bottle at auction.

Not a bad legacy for an enterprising widow. An inspirational tale for the rest of us.

“The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life.
Act with audacity.”

Mme. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot née Ponsardin


Richard Dannenberg | Jan 20, 2015 | Small Business Marketing | article link
Bank, John. Vinnicombe, Susan. Women With Attitude, Lessons for Career Management.
Gelling, Natasha. The Widow Who Created the Champagne Industry,
The Champagne widows: How mourning women who lost their husbands at a young age are behind the world’s finest drink, Daily Press.

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