Southern Comfort salutes everyday awesomeness

Are you tired of seeing pretty people parking expensive cars outside houses you couldn't afford, touting a lifestyle that's tastier/thinner/tidier that yours?

Then this drink is for you, says Southern Comfort, the whisky-based liqueur that celebrates everyday awesomeness.

The brand, owned by Louisville-based Brown-Forman, has raised eyebrows with its TV commercials celebrating some interesting examples of masculinity.

It began last year with "Beach," which gave overweight men permission to relax in a swimsuit, and now there's "Shampoo," which says there is nothing wrong with enjoying a little male "me time."

Southern Comfort's message: be who you are and like it, said Lena DerOhannessian, the brand's global marketing director.

Unabashed acceptance of who you are as a human being is "a better state than what societal pressures could put on you, pressure to be someone you're not," she said. "If that resonates with older men who say, 'Hey, that's what I look like,' then that will generate warm feelings for the brand."

Southern Comfort hopes potential customers will transfer the humor and acceptance to the brand.

"That's the end game," DerOhannessian said. "You're respecting Southern Comfort as the author of this message. We feel like it's a more aspiration message than make more money, party on a yacht and sip fine bourbon out of a glass you probably don't own."

The campaigns came from Wieden+Kennedy's New York office, a switch for Brown-Forman, which used Arnold Worldwide for both Southern Comfort and Jack Daniel's for more than a decade. Arnold Worldwide still handles Jack Daniel's, but in 2011 Brown-Forman needed to try something new with Southern Comfort.

The brand experienced a surge of popularity a few years ago when bartenders began serving it with lime, DerOhannessian said.

"We saw really amazing on-premise (bar) growth of the brand," she said. Then, with the worldwide economic downtown in 2008, bar sales across the board suffered. But Southern Comfort "stayed that way for longer than made us comfortable," she said.

"So two years ago, there was a really brave recognition that Southern Comfort needed a turnaround. ... We needed to change the game entirely."

Southern Comfort was born in New Orleans and Memphis, and past campaigns had played up the southern aspect.

These emphasize the comfort.

"Consumers are tired of being told they have to be brighter, bolder, more handsome, make more money. ... Wouldn't you be more comfortable being yourself? Own it," she said.

"Beach" went viral almost immediately, with advertising critics raving about it.

"This is the most interesting man in the world," Adweek said, referencing the famous Dos Equis campaign featuring a Hemingway-esque actor as "the most interesting man in the world," with wildly improbable claims of adventure. "It's like a very short French New Wave film about an awesome fat guy."

A British blogger dubbed it "The coolest advert of 2012," saying, "Who is this guy? An off-duty French police lieutenant? A German tourist? A truck driver? A professional Dutch gambler? Retired Italian gangster? Undercover cop? Ex bull fighter? All of which would explain his swagger."

Now, comes "Shampoo."

In the new ad, which is airing on U.S. TV now but will be going overseas later this year, a man with a Sam Elliott mustache and snakeskin boots enjoys having his long hair washed in a beauty parlor. And nobody bats an eye, not even the lady across the way having her hair done.

"The idea is not to hold a mirror up to consumers and say this is a true representative of you. Look at this guy, he's a tough dude with snakeskin boots ... who should theoretically feel very uncomfortable in an old-school ladies salon, but he's so in his element that he rocks the world around him," DerOhannessian said. "The whole message is whoever you are and whatever you believe in, be proud of it. It's a pro-human being message. Whoever you are, 'self-comfortableness' is the ideal state. Other brands will ask you to be more than you are, Southern Comfort just asks you to be who you are."

Again, there is a deliberate ambiguity about the situation that leaves room for viewers to read into it what they like.

"Doesn't get any more subtle than these commercials," acknowledged Jimm Lasser, Wieden+Kennedy creative director. "At the end, it might not be tied up in such a neat bow. Brown-Forman's kind of brave to let us explore that kind of communication."

Take the moment when the "Shampoo" man puts on his aviators and glances at the woman in the mirror.

"We did that take over and over again," Lasser said. "We wanted him to seem a gentleman, respectful."

Filmed at a real beauty parlor in Toronto, "Shampoo" has a timelessness, just like "Beach."

"The message is classic. It's not meant to look old, but it has a little bit of 'sun kissed old photo,' a little Kodachrome to it," Lasser said.

The messages resonate with buyers as well, boosting sales in the United States last year.

"We saw about a five-point turnaround in the U.S. on sales and Nielsen takeaway — data on how often consumers are pulling it off the shelf," DerOhannessian said. "To see that kind of a trend swing is remarkable, that really is having an impact."

So expect to see a lot more of these kinds of guys because Brown-Forman is investing heavily in Southern Comfort advertising again this year. The company has not disclosed specific figures, but advertising industry estimates would put it at several million dollars.

The next ad, coming in the fall, will be a sequel, with additional pieces launching online.

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