When Country Wasn't Cool

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Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood host last week's Country Music Awards.
Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood host last week's Country Music Awards. Credit: Provided by Donn Jones

Country music has a perception problem. Conventional wisdom is that it's an advertising backwater of low-income Luddites from C and D counties. Perhaps country crooner David Allan Coe put it best when he sang that the perfect country and western song has lyrics about "mama, trains, trucks, prison or getting drunk."

Those are the stereotypes that the Country Music Association was out to quash last week with a cowboy boot camp for advertisers that drew marketers from companies you might expect would be drawn to the genre—Cabela's, Mack Trucks, Anheuser-Busch's Natural Light and Pilot Flying J—but also some outliers like Aflac, Comcast, U.S. Bank, Unilever and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"There will be a lot of surprises when you see the numbers," Damon Whiteside, CMO at the CMA, told the 32 attendees.

Karen Stump, senior director of market research, set out to knock down what she called "outdated" notions of country. Among the stats she delivered about who consumes country music: They comprise more than 46 percent of U.S. adults, 40 percent of boomers, 39 percent of millennials and 40 percent of Gen Xers. The average household income of country listeners is $81,800, versus $78,800 for the general population, she says.

But the association's biggest pitch might just be this: Country stars are brand-friendly and they have dedicated fan bases.

"I get it. Everybody wants Katy Perry. In country the numbers are lower, but the engagement is higher," says Cameo Carlson, president of artist development group mTheory.

Damon Whiteside, CMO of the CMA, addresses the Brand Marketing Summit held at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Damon Whiteside, CMO of the CMA, addresses the Brand Marketing Summit held at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Credit: Ad Age

Brad Paisley even went off script during last year's Country Music Association Awards show to sing "Are you here to sell insurance?" to the tune of the Nationwide jingle, addressing the insurer's other spokesman at the event, Peyton Manning. That was unpaid. "Trust me, we would have tried to monetize that," says Emily Evans, senior director of strategic partnerships at the CMA.

Several attendees at the boot camp said they were drawn to the genre's comparative cost-effectiveness. Tanvi Sikand, senior marketing manager for brand and media partnerships at Balsam Hill, a maker of artificial Christmas trees, advertised on the "CMA Country Christmas" show last year—and got her trees onstage as set decoration.

"I was nervous watching the show because it was a big chunk of our budget," she says. But Balsam Hill's website visits climbed beyond her expectations during the airing, she says. She is returning this year as a sponsor.

Tara Dowling, associate director of strategy at Spark Foundry, says she came to explore allying a client with music as a potential differentiator in a high-spending category. Another person in attendance said that a buy on the CMAs is a relative bargain compared with shows like the Grammys.

According to an Ad Age analysis, the average cost for the 2016 CMA Awards show was $250,000 per 30-second spot, compared with $985,000 in the 2017 Grammys. Last week's CMA Awards delivered a 3.2 rating in viewers age 18 to 49, up 10 percent from last year when it was facing Game 7 of the World Series, and drew 14.3 million total viewers, up 14 percent, according to Nielsen. By comparison, the Grammys brought in a 7.8 rating in adults 18 to 49 and 26.1 million viewers in total.

In an industry where "authenticity" is a huge buzzword, the CMA claims it delivers in abundance. "Rihanna probably doesn't drive a Chevy, but country music stars do," says Shari Lewin, a partner at WME handling commercial endorsements.

They also drive Mack Trucks—or at least have relatives who work on them. Mack tapped singer-songwriter Steve Moakler to pen the song "Born Ready" for a dealer event to unveil a new truck. Moakler says he was drawn to the project because his granddad once was a truck mechanic. He ended up creating a stirring anthem to the workingman who spends most of his time on the road to make life better for his family. The marketing team "came to my release show" for a chemistry meeting, says Moakler, and they got so fired up that "we shut that bar down."

It was a risk for Mack, however, because it had little to no input in the song. "I downplayed it in the boardroom because I had heard some of these deals don't go so well, so if that happened I was going to bury it," says John Walsh, Mack's VP of marketing. "Then crap, we have this fantastic song." Mack produced a video for it that clocked more than 50,000 views on YouTube in its first two months, and is expanding its relationship with Moakler.

Liz Daney, exec VP and chief media offer at Fitzco in Atlanta, attended the summit on behalf of a financial client that normally sponsors sports. "There has been some tarnish on sports these days," she says. "I'm looking for something a bit more positive."

Daney says she was taken aback by "the openness of the CMA and talent agencies to explore opportunities across budget levels." The event, she says, helped break down stereotypes, citing a performer the CMA brought in to entertain the group—a country beatboxer named Walker Hayes.

"Diversity is happening in country music," she says. "It is not this C and D county 50-year-old white guy listening. The genre has so many nuances to it, and a breadth of different artists."

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