Discover more from Tone Knob
The Rochambeau Club
It's refined. It's exclusive. It's... not real?
Dear readers. Apologies; it has been rather too long since my last correspondence. You see, I inadvertently spent rather more of the summer at The Rochambeau Club than I intended. It’s all too easy to do: the courts are immaculate; the rosé is first class; and the pedalo operators are… most attentive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps you haven’t yet been put up for membership? Here, they have a ‘brochure’:
Sounds rather good, non? –
Wait, André Agassi what? And what are those ‘other facilities’? Let us take a look at the map –
Panoramic sorbet lounge? Snorkelling jetty? Orson Welles Memorial Garden? Is this… some kind of joke?
It is indeed. The Rochambeau Club is a fabrication, a fiction, entirely imaginary. The whole Club has been conjured up to create the perfect aspirational setting for a wine – Racquet rosé.
The Rochambeau Club’s exquisite blend of old money snobbery, Wes Anderson strangeness, and 1970s ‘tennis girl’ sauciness isn’t located in the South of France at all, it’s located in our imaginations. And it’s been created almost entirely out of a tone of voice.
It’s a bold and unique approach to marketing a wine1. And damn, it’s good. They’re absolute masters of what we might call oblique world-building: the Club is created almost entirely through ephemera and marginalia, inferences and asides.
Here’s an extract from their menu. What kind of place serves ‘Eggs au Line Judge’, ruinously expensive brioche and strong cigarettes?:
Even better than these items themselves is the menu’s disclaimer. The tiny footnote contains a whole universe:
The Club’s Lost Property Inventory is even better. It feels like Evelyn Waugh’s abandoned murder mystery notes:
On occasion, we meet other Club members. Here are Gustav and Rocco, June’s ‘over 70s grass court champions’ (‘as far as we can work out, the only client-attorney partnership to have ever played at Roland Garros… with more than 30 trophies, eight newspapers and six valid passports between them…’). Impeccable hashtag game, too.
Sometimes, the Club’s Chairman addresses members directly. His train of thought is invariably derailed into family matters. (That line – ‘Instagram, for anyone not aware, is a very exciting modern phenomenon, like Skype or Paris’ has been making me laugh for weeks now.)
There’s frequent talk of skiing holidays and boarding schools. Americans are faintly disdained, and modern life is treated with wry bemusement. (From another missive: ‘Double-cooked back bacon available all Sunday by request of the incoming diplomats. I am told it is a sort of ‘American ham.’) It’s a send-up, but it’s also done with real warmth.
This being a club, there’s the endless, interminable clarification of rules (‘The 42nd edition of our House Rules which will be published in hardback, waterproof paperback and German … include: the ‘6th Soufflé amendment’; our first illustrated guide to acceptable swan dives; and an expanded appendix on under-arm serves which really ought to put the matter to bed once and for all.’)
And for no reason at all, there’s a running joke about pedalos. The club offers a ‘pedalo shuttle service’; the jobs vacant board has an opening for ‘Pedalo Operator (nights)’ – and for anyone who takes the trouble to zoom in on those official-looking logos in the website footer – IFPO stands for ‘INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF PEDALO OPERATORS’:
The Rochambeau Club earns its place in a rich tradition of rarefied British absurdist fabulation: from the Henry Root letters2 to The Chap magazine to the Framley Examiner, we do love a clever in-joke that can endlessly and fondly riff off the petty absurdities of People Taking Themselves A Bit Too Seriously.
It’s so beautifully done and lovingly written that I not only frequently LOLed, but at one point – the line about bacon being ‘a sort of American ham’ – I literally applauded. I was so into being in on the in-joke that I applied for Membership –
– and I clicked enthusiastically on the shop. I definitely wanted a Raquet Rosé. Turns out you can only buy it by the half case. So now I have six bottles of rosé wine.3 I don’t even drink.
OK, I’ll stop now. This really is just descending into me pointing at things and crying.
The big lesson here is the obvious one: when everyone else le zigs, le zag. Of all the thousands of wines launched this year, this is the boldest, most original and most memorable. When everyone else is talking about flavour profiles and hints of peach and pairs well with fish, The Rochambeau Club are talking about how the Crown Prince of Värmland will be arriving by hang-glider on Sunday.
It’s a risk (it is, after all, still a niche joke). But it’s also strategically sound: a summer rosé isn’t a ‘wine for drinking’, it’s a vibe. And what a vibe this is. I hope it brings them wild success.
🍷 Three things to love and learn from:
Never forget: words make worlds. There is no Rochambeau Club. There are no tennis courts, no rule books, no Monday night Mixer and Cured Meat reception, no hang-gliding Crown Prince of Värmland. And yet – we all feel it, don’t we. For about the same cost as, say, hiring a swanky villa for a photoshoot, Rochambeau have created a whole world which is theirs forever. Creating worlds with sentences is staggeringly easy, ridiculously cheap and infinitely malleable. It’s wild to me that more brands don’t try it.
Create faux friction. I once worked with a global digital brand who were so good at getting customers through their ‘funnel’ as ‘friction-free’ as possible that people often didn’t remember they’d actually used their services. Notice how The Rochambeau Club use their tone of voice to create faux friction – little moments of slowness that only make you want to be in on it all even more. (Membership applications take ‘between 48 hours and several years’.) What’s your version of Rochambeau’s membership committee meeting ‘infrequently and over lunch’. (Without actually, you know, being crap UX.)
Get your riff on: The Rochambeau Club’s Instagram uses a simple and effective formula: flick through (say) 1980s back issues of Vogue, find a vibey photo you can pretend was taken at the Club, and make up the backstory4. Do you have a similar source? Somewhere you can reliably return to for on-brand inspiration and invention? A reliable wellspring is more valuable than any single ‘killer creative idea’. Go find something.
Thanks so much for reading. Thanks to everyone who gave me the heads up on The Rochambeau Club. Do please keep the recommendations coming.
Next time: we’re looking at a bland brand that found its voice after more than a decade. It’s rare and interesting for that to happen. Make sure you’re signed up so you don’t miss it.
🙌 Thanks for reading. This Tone Knob is free to read. Paid subscribers can read all the other issues, too. Tone Knob is the world’s most comprehensive close analysis of brand language, verbal identity and tone of voice. The current post is always free to read in full – but if Tone Knob is valuable for your work and you’d like to read the previous issues, on brands as diverse as the CIA, Gov.uk, and that one about the intimate waxing salon everyone keeps talking about, do please become a paid subscriber. It helps keep Tone Knob on the road. Thanks!
I usually get one or two recommendations for brands to feature in Tone Knob a month. Seven people messaged me about The Rochambeau Club in one week. I don’t know how many units they’re shifting, but they’re certainly ‘gaining traction’ in the lucrative copywriters-who-like-satire-and-also-drinking demographic. (Which, according to a recent ProCopywriters survey, is all copywriters.)
If you’re a fan of the Ali G-slash-Philomena Cunk school of comic trolling, you really gotta read some Henry Root. In the 1970s and 80s, writer William Donaldson wrote to politicians, royalty, football club owners and senior military figures under the guise of ‘wet fish salesman’, Henry Root, lampooning their pomposity and frequently enclosing a pound note in order to encourage his subjects to write back and dig themselves further into a hole. Donaldson’s life was almost as outrageous as his fictional creations. This from his obituary in 2005: ‘In 1971, Donaldson went to Ibiza. Down to £2,000, he spent it on a glass-bottomed boat. Back in London, he lived at a friend's brothel off the Fulham Road, which inspired his first novel…’
Or to be more accurate – whether deliberately or accidentally, their website makes it look like a single bottle is £119.99, which confused the heck out of me and temporarily brought the whole of Club Rochambeau tumbling down. Surely the whole point of this is that it’s faux luxury? But £119.99 is real luxury pricing! I briefly entertained the idea that it was all some kind of über-ironic double in-joke, a spoof exclusive club aimed at people who are actually wealthy enough to be members of real exclusive private members clubs? I called wine marketing guru Joe Fattorini to thrash out what might be going on. Then I googled it and realised that was price per half-case. Facepalms for everyone.