Volume 6 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

When you have a brand that dates back well over a century, tradition is something you don’t mess with. At the same time, you need to keep the brand relevant, so that it attracts new consumers.
But you never lose sight of a proud legacy. And that’s the story of Southern Comfort – the popular whiskey blended with fruit and spice flavors – which was created in 1874 by New Orleans bartender Martin Wilkes Heron. Legend has it that Heron was born on the Fourth of July. The rest, as they say, is American history – and Southern Comfort’s history is both colorful and mythological. Back in the days when Heron tended bar, electric lightning was exotic technology and horsepower actually came from horses.

Today, Southern Comfort is a time-honored product. A new breed of sippers – customers aged 21 to 29 years – enjoy the “SoCo” taste. But the 100-year-old brand needs to drive more consumers to its product. In response, the company positioned itself upon digital marketing platforms that didn’t exist even a decade ago. We’re talking about electronic social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

“The fine label detailing on the label that we had been using since the last package update didn’t translate well into the 64 x 64 pixel image needed for social media like Facebook and Twitter,” explains Mike Isaac, assistant vice president, global marketing director. “Our intent was to contemporize the packaging to make it more relevant to today’s consumer while maintaining the iconic bottle shape. We also wanted to create a brand identity system that has multiple applications – whether it be online, at the bar or on the store shelf – with equally strong visibility and presence.”

The new package was designed by Cue, a Minneapolis-headquartered brand design firm, and it was based in part on consumer focus group input garnered by Southern Comfort’s parent company, the Louisville, Ky.-based distiller Brown-Forman Corp. Illustrator Christian Northeast was commissioned to capture New Orleans’ energy and culture, especially for consumers unfamiliar with the city’s distinctive and vibrant character. Northeast’s award-winning design appears on the new neck wrap for the bottle.

The iconic shield on the front of the bottle gives the brand a simplified look that harkens back to history but is still very much up to date. It features a fleur de lis and filigree that echoes the wrought-iron balconies characteristic of New Orleans’ pervasive French architecture, with “New Orleans Original” embossed at the top. A subtly stylized oval of the cityscape appears at the bottom. The bottom label is now easier to read, with the slogan “None Genuine But Mine” (bartender-inventor Heron’s purported philosophy) running across it. This slogan appeared on the first-ever Southern Comfort bottle, and the tradition- bound company retains it to this day.

CRESCENT MOON RISING

One of the expressed purposes in package redesign was the incorporation of New Orleans heritage into the imagery, Isaac notes. “The key feature on the black label is a crescent moon encircled by the saying ‘Inspired by the Crescent City,’ the nickname of the drink’s birthplace. New Orleans has been in the news lately in the last few years, and a lot of what has come from the city has been negative – when you consider what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. But we’re promoting what is best about the city. We’re proud of our hometown and the positives that the Louisiana region offers, as well as the contribution to the national culture. We attempt to communicate that as a key part of our brand identity.”

Further, as the company is proud of its regional roots and its hometown heritage, it is giving back to the community. “We’re donating a percentage of sales to the Gulf Relief Foundation, to help the local fisherman endure these tough times and to preserve the wetlands that play a huge part in their survival.”

NOT IN A VACUUM

Isaac also points out another interesting fact: Southern Comfort didn’t recreate its iconography in a vacuum. Here’s how it happened: Brown-Forman began conducting market research in January 2009. The firm presented concepts to consumer focus groups. From there, it settled on an idea, and it validated that idea by sending various electronic images of packaged concepts to different settings – specifically awaiting response from customers who purchased products in the tavern and package store environments. The process involved hundreds of consumers, Isaac reveals. They gave approval. “It was like we received permission to make the change,” he says.

Looking back on the experience, Isaac observes, “Only a few companies that offer spirit brands utilize packaging concepts as a communications tool. The new Southern Comfort design provides an opportunity to reconnect with loyal customers and, at the same time, make a proud and distinctive shelf presence. It doesn’t matter if that shelf resides in a bar or a retail outlet. The new design draws attention to our product and gains new customers.”

NEW LABEL, SAME CONTENT

Of course, while the label has changed, the contents remain the same. As such, new customers can enjoy a long lasting tradition while loyal customers – the over-40 generation – need not fear that anything has changed about a brand they have come to know and love. Indeed, the company strives to appeal to customers with discerning tastes.

That has led to a new product launch: Southern Comfort has introduced a new subcategory into its broad portfolio – SoCo Lime – which follows close on the heels of its new packaging efforts. Isaac describes how this came about: “It came in response to a drink that bartenders in the Northeast had been making since the 1990s. We didn’t set out to create an experimental, entry beverage or some new kind of category to expand market share. That’s something many beverage makers have tried. Rather, we were just listening to our customers, and we wanted to provide them with a more consistent version of something that they’ve been enjoying for decades.”

The on-premise version provides a perfectly mixed, ready-to-pour version of the popular bar call. Meanwhile, consumers can now get a requested drink from off of the store shelf. SoCo Lime has been available since spring to selected taverns and retail outlets. By September, it will become more widely available.

Southern Comfort now plans a number of activities to promote its new look and its SoCo Lime product. In fact, the company is applying numerous promotional techniques to communicate to customers, both old and new, what’s been happening. “This involves outdoor advertising and point-of-sale displays, but we’re also embracing the new technology and communication opportunities,” says Isaac. “Among other activities, we’ve created a Facebook page, which will help up us to aggressively promote both our new look and our new products.”

In the meantime, those who value good drink, good conversation and a contemplation of colorful history can rest assured that Southern Comfort will provide all of that.