Wieden & Kennedy and Southern Comfort Part Ways

Agency Change Comes After Brown-Forman Sells SoCo to Sazerac

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Credit: Courtesy Southern Comfort
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Wieden & Kennedy New York -- which created the award-winning "Whatever's Comfortable" campaign for Southern Comfort -- is parting ways with the struggling whiskey liqueur brand in wake of an ownership change.

Brown-Forman -- which had controlled Southern Comfort since 1979 -- last week completed a previously announced sale to Sazerac, a privately held company whose brands include Fireball cinnamon whisky and Buffalo Trace whiskey. The company bought SoCo and another liqueur brand called Tuaca from Brown-Forman for $542.4 million.

A Wieden & Kennedy spokeswoman confirmed that the shop would no longer be working on Southern Comfort. Asked about future marketing plans, a spokeswoman for Sazerac said, "since the sale is just now complete it would be premature to say for certain what our plans are for the brand, or what agency we may be working with."

Wieden & Kennedy still handles Brown-Forman's Finlandia vodka, Maximus vodka and Chambord liqueur out of its London office.

Wieden & Kennedy won the Southern Comfort account in 2012. The shop created the quirky "Whatever's Comfortable" campaign that celebrates people with the confidence to be themselves. For instance, the debut spot featured a regular-looking man with a bit of a beer gut walking along a beach as the song "Hit or Miss" by 1960s-era folk singer Odetta played in the background.

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The campaign drew widespread creative praise. It was the ninth-most decorated ad campaign in Ad Age's 2013 Awards Report, which tallies results from the industry's most respected global shows.

But the ads failed to lift Southern Comfort into positive sales growth. On an earnings call last week, Brown-Forman Chief Financial Officer Jane Morreau said the brand has experienced a "persistent sales decline since 2008." Southern Comfort sales slipped 6% in the nine months ending Jan. 31, excluding currency fluctuations and changes in distributor inventories, Brown-Forman reported.

In the years following Brown-Forman's 1979 acquisition, Southern Comfort "enjoyed a dominant position in the flavored spirit category given limited direct competition," Ms. Morreau said on the call. But "the competitive landscape in flavored whiskey has heated up over the last few years, including some of our own brand introductions such as Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire and Honey. And this competition has been eroding Southern Comfort's leading share."

"So over the last few years, we have allocated additional time, focus and dollars toward reinvigorating the brand with limited success and reached the conclusion that we should sell the brand and re-dedicate resources to brands that we believe have greater long-term growth prospects," she added.

Brown-Forman significantly cut Southern Comfort's media support last year. Measured media spending fell from nearly $13 million in 2014 to $135,400 last year, according to Kantar Media. The brand last ran a national TV ad in late 2014, according to iSpot.tv. The spot was called "Young Gun" and was part of the "Whatever's Comfortable" campaign.

Sazerac's style is to eschew traditional advertising in favor of grassroots marketing. The company spent just $1.7 million on measured media in 2015, according to Kantar Media.

Fireball has provided a big boost for Sazerac in recent years. But the brand -- which is designed for shots -- has lost momentum of late as bigger marketers have jumped into the cinnamon shot space.

Fireball's growth rate fell from 65% a year ago to -1% as of January, Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Trevor Stirling noted in a report in January. "Some of the volumes no doubt [are] being picked up by Brown-Forman's Tennessee Fire, and to a lesser extent Jim Beam Fire," he stated.