Seagram, Bronfman and Chivas Regal
“Edgar M. Bronfman, Who Brought Elegance and Expansion to Seagram, Dies at 84” is the headline from the The New York Times obituary.
I didn’t know Edgar Sr. (or the Chairman as he was known) very well but interacted with him on a number of occasions, mainly when Edgar Jr. was off doing his Hollywood thing.
A number of stories come to mind, particularly about his pride and joy, Chivas Regal.
On one occasion, when I was running US marketing, I was summoned (along with my new products guru, Sam Ellias) to his office to tell us about a new product idea for Chivas Regal. Apparently, on a trip to Europe to survey the state of the business there, a young brand manager suggested that Chivas needed to be more contemporary and she had just the idea for how to do it – a line extension with a more intriguing and youthful brand proposition.
Chivas Regal had been losing market share for years and any ideas to drastically change the brand’s fortune were usually rejected somewhere along the line. That the Chairman should be willing to embrace a new scotch brand under the Chivas banner was very welcome news.
The brand manager in Europe suggested that we introduce a product called Chivas De Danu, named for a Celtic goddess who spent eternity with her youthful followers living a life somewhere between bacchanalia and debauchery. (Not exactly right but close.) I suppose the idea was that if you drank Chivas De Danu, you would stay young forever and always get laid.
The problem was, the Chairman referred to it correctly when I first got summoned to his office, but kept referring to it in our meeting as Chivas Duna, as in Charlie the Tuna. Sam and I were perplexed and looked it up online (this was the late 1990s and even then, the world was at our finger tips). Sure enough it was Danu (as in Danube) not Duna.
Now, the hard part. We needed to tell him that while he got it right originally, a product named Chivas de Duna was not going anywhere in the market, after the laughter stopped. The product needed to be called Chivas De Danu.
Sam and I nervously set up a meeting with Edgar. Surprisingly, neither of us got our heads chopped off and he listened attentively to our information but remained a bit skeptical. He had a brand new computer in his office and was in the process of learning how to use it, so he challenged us by rushing to his computer to look it up.
He attempted to turn it on but nothing happened. He grew frustrated and angry and yelled for his secretary, Maxine, to “get that asshole from IT, or whatever they’re called, here immediately.”
Within moments (most of us waited days for help), someone appeared and sheepishly asked what was the matter. I recall the IT person had a look on his face akin to a prisoner going to the gallows and his knees were shaking so much, he could hardly stand. Before the Chairman could turn his palpable anger on the poor guy, Maxine interrupted and told Edgar he had a call. With a wave of his hand as he walked off, he indicated that we should work with the IT person to fix the problem and learn the answer.
The two of us hovered over the poor IT fellow as he tried to fix the Chairman’s computer. It took one second. He leaned over and tugged on the electric cord and showed us the computer wasn’t plugged in. “I thought so,” he said, “that’s what the problem was last week when I went to his home to fix the computer there.”
Computer fixed, information retrieved and there was the irrefutable evidence that the brand should be called Chivas De Danu. When Edgar returned and saw it for himself, there was a shrug. None of us had the courage to tell him what was wrong with his computer.
By the way, the brand failed miserably.
I blamed it on Sam Ellias.
(Another story about Edgar Sr. and Chivas Regal can be found elsewhere on this blog – August 7, 2011, titled “Chivas Gin?”)