If a new campaign by Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine works, bars across America will soon be howling.
The effort -- which marks a vastly different marketing approach for the five-year-old brand -- incorporates a new wolf mascot whose job is to encourage drinkers to order a shot, chug it and unleash a howl. Creating a new barroom tradition is no easy task, of course. But Ole Smoky marketers hope the custom catches on and brings new life to the moonshine category, which has slowed after bursting out of the gate a few years ago when states began legalizing it.
Moonshine's U.S. sales grew to $46 million in 2014 from $5 million in 2011, but sales dropped to $41 million in the 52 weeks ending June 20, according to Nielsen.
"The category isn't the rocket that it was previously and we need to push through that," said Ole Smoky CEO John Cochran.
The changing market prompted Ole Smoky to overhaul its marketing and positioning. The brand, whose main distillery in Gatlinburg, Tenn., had been playing up its southern heritage and the Appalachian sharing mentality via a campaign called "Have Some, Friend." One ad depicted Ole Smoky as being "born from Appalachian mud and mist."
"We don't want to avoid our traditional consumer or alienate them. We are selling quite a bit of product and have a great following," said Meg Bruno, who recently joined the company as its senior director of marketing. "But we really felt in order to build the brand further we needed to reach out into more of a mass market."
Enter the wolf. His name, Gatlin T. Wolf III, is a derivative of the brand's Gatlinburg home. And he is based on the red wolf that once commonly roamed the Appalachian mountains. But Gatlin is no hillbilly. Dressed in a sharp suit, he is meant to be an "instigator of good times," according to executives at Standard Time, the Los Angeles-based agency that created the campaign.
Gatlin is the "Gatsby of Tennessee wolfs," said Spencer Somers, an associate creative director at Standard Time. "He's a modern man for the modern drinker. It was really important to pull this category out of the past and do something that is relevant for the millennial today."
The campaign, called "C'Mon Live a Little," will include digital videos in which the animatronic wolf's howl lures people from their homes and offices into the bar, where they drink and howl with the furry Gatlin, who does not talk. The brand is also planning to put the mascot at real-life bars. In the past year, Ole Smoky has run cocktail programs at several national accounts including Buffalo Wild Wings, Hooters and Outback Steakhouse, whose offerings have included "Watermelon Hunch Punch" made from Ole Smoky Blackberry
The videos are scheduled to break in August. Earlier this month, the brand released what it called a manifesto video (above). Spending will run into the seven figures, according to the brand, which did not disclose the exact amount.
Old Smoky founders include Joe Baker, a lawyer whose family tree reaches back to some of the earliest settlers of eastern Tennessee, according to a recent Forbes profile.
The brand was launched in 2010 after Tennessee legalized statewide moonshine production. Mr. Cochran, a former CEO at Pabst Brewing Co., joined the company in 2013 and works from an office in El Segundo, Calif., as does Ms. Bruno.
The brand is sold in jars and its proof strength ranges from 35 to more than 100, depending on the variety. Ole Smoky comes in multiple flavors, such as apple pie, watermelon, peach and "Moonshine Cherries," which is made by soaking moonshine in maraschino cherries. The brand had U.S. sales of $7.26 million in the 52 weeks ending June 14, according to IRI. But that only includes store sales. Mr. Cochran estimated the brand's total share of the moonshine market at 40% to 45%.
Moonshine, which is essentially unaged whiskey, accounts for just 1% of the total $4.2 billion whiskey category, according to Nielsen.
Mr. Somers said moonshine's sweet spot is to carve out a space blending the best attributes of bourbon and tequila. The goal, he said, is to "fuse those two together to create this new category that would have all the richness and the intelligence of a bourbon, but all the party and fun of a tequila."
With that as a lofty goal, Gatlin better get howlin'.