Q&A With Mustache Aficionado Aaron Perlut

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Aaron Perlut is a partner at the St. Louis-based PR and marketing firm Elasticity, but what he's best known for is his American Mustache Institute. Born from an idea that began brewing during his time at Fleishman-Hillard, the AMI is a quasi-spoof advocacy organization for facial hair with a carefully crafted staff and a satiric history ("promoting the growth, care and culture of the lower nose forest," as the site says) dating back to 1965.

The AMI Stache Yourself mirror is available for $9.95 online.
The AMI Stache Yourself mirror is available for $9.95 online. Credit: American Mustache Institute

In taking "a page from the long-used third-party endorser in the PR industry," Mr. Perlut created tool for his Elasticity clients and his own brand, as well as an opportunity to witness the power of search engine optimization, humor and creative content. He talks to Ad Age about how the brand has flourished over the years, and the mustache trend of the moment. (Scroll down to vote on which mustache you'd associate with your brand).

Ad Age : What has been the return on investment on your AMI endeavor?

Mr. Perlut: The AMI has touched on everything from providing me with a creative outlet to really giving me a completely new perspective on how to execute a strategic marketing campaign to helping me understand the effectiveness of humor [when paired] with the right brand. And also just having a silly outlet to write, do and say things I normally would not.

Ad Age : You're now licensing a mustache mirror and selling it via AMI for client Stout. You're clearly leveraging the institute in interesting ways for clients, so how has this platform expanded the kind of work you do?

Mr. Perlut: One way I've used it is to sell an idea to a client. We have a number of brand integrations with the site, from Budweiser to Miller Lite to Just for Men to TurboTax. We're about to execute a significant AMI campaign with a director of social media who saw the value of pairing a nontraditional brand with a humor-oriented medium. Aside from the retainer with Stout, we won't derive any revenue from product sales. Stout is trying to diversify its product portfolio. So this gets back to the content and offering new aspects of entertainment on the AMI site. If a client asks if they can have a one-off on the site, I'm always happy to give it to them.

Ad Age : How much of your current success with AMI is related to the fact that mustaches are incredibly trendy right now, especially among millennials?

Mr. Perlut: This is where AMI skews the line between real and fake. Today, the reality is that most reporters don't believe anything they see in a news release unless it's earnings-related. With AMI, we try to humor our audience by fitting into the news of the day. For example, Herman Cain was a Republican frontrunner so we endorsed him. Every political blog wrote about it. Then when he was having his troubles, we rescinded our nomination for him, but the irony was that it was not based on anything relevant to his sexual misconduct suggestions. It was based on the fact that we went to Godfather's and had the "All Meat Combo" and it had limited meat. AMI goes beyond the mustache to the point where it's a good model for other aspects of developing campaigns and making them newsworthy.

Ad Age : Why are mustaches so popular right now? They're all over consumer products at places like Urban Outfitters and on sites like Etsy.

Mr. Perlut: One reason would be that millennial men have taken to facial hair as a means of expression. The other is the charitable movement around facial hair, with organizations like Movember, ours and events like Mustache March. I also think the advocacy that the AMI has done, resulting in media attention, has played a role. For example, a couple of years ago a young kid from Texas emailed the site. He was removed from class and forced to shave his mustache because of a facial hair policy. I sent an arrogant email from the AMI site to the superintendent, and I cc'd the AP bureau and Dallas Daily News. There was a front-page story on it. I've done that 10 times in the last couple of years.

Ad Age : Is the trend sustainable?

Mr. Perlut: Despite their current popularity, the trend will definitely go downward because we are such a cyclical culture. In the 1970's, all men had three things: a perm, a turtleneck and a mustache. In the 1980's mustaches became extinct, much like the Chinese panda. Over the last five-to-six years there's been a rise in popularity largely due to factors mentioned. I'm enjoying the ride.

Ad Age : Is there a danger in overdoing it with AMI brand partnerships?

Mr. Perlut: I tend to be cautious about prostituting the site. It has grown up as a non-branded site for the most part. We really dislike the value proposition of a brand writing a check and getting to place its brand on a website or press release. Every year before our [charitable] Stache Bash, I come up with a new promotional campaign that doesn't seem like it's a promotional campaign for the event, but it is . This year we manufactured a campaign for the most-mustache-friendly cities in America. Chicago was the winner, and that 's where we held the event. It was clearly ridiculous. There's a white paper on our site, and it's a fine line between reality and ridicularity. We placed careful mention of Miller Lite throughout the white paper.

According to Mr. Perlut, the most popular mustache look today is the chevron style with a soul patch accentuating it under the chin, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right one for your brand. Choose the style (only the style, not the celebrity) that you'd want to associate with your brand.

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