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Mustache marketing: Selling ‘whisky wisdom’ to younger drinkers

The ‘Canadian Club Chairman’ is the newest in a growing population of macho men used by alcohol marketers.

He sports a lush thicket of chest hair. He loves bacon and inadvisably large steaks. His decor includes dark wood, leather and mounted antlers. He is not The Most Interesting Man in the World.

But like the star of the series of Dos Equis ads, the new spokesperson for Canadian Club whisky is meant to evoke a kind of hyper-masculinity.

"We call him a badass gentleman," said Rob Tucker, the senior brand manager for Canadian, American and Irish whiskies at Beam Inc., the distiller that owns Canadian Club.

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The "Canadian Club Chairman," who makes his debut in a campaign launched this week, is the newest in a growing population of macho men used by alcohol marketers to play to the target audience's manhood. Along with the Dos Equis character for beer, competitors in the classic brown liquors have in recent years been using manly images more frequently in their advertising.

There is The Chivas Brotherhood, an online men's club linked to the scotch; Jameson has harnessed the "legend of John Jameson" with images of its founder arm-wrestling and slaying a mythical hawk; and here in Canada, Corby Distilleries Ltd. has grown its market share for Wiser's whisky with its Wiserhood campaign, created by Toronto agency John St., featuring a "society of uncompromising men" who appear out of nowhere to applaud any man who resists an occasion that threatens his manhood.

The reason for targeting male consumers is obvious: In Canada, the whisky category still skews to a roughly 70-30 split of male to female drinkers. After roughly five years of general stagnation across the category in Canada, whisky sales are beginning to return to growth – and marketers are courting that target consumer even more heavily. Market sales for the Canadian whisky category were up 4 per cent in September compared to the previous year, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers.

Beam has said that Canadian Club is one of its high-priority products now, and increased its advertising budgets for 2012. Those budgets will be "at least" maintained at that increased level next year, Mr. Tucker said.

Its initial efforts have proven successful: Canadian Club Classic sales were up 15 per cent in September compared to last year, and the Reserve product was up 17 per cent. Thus far, the brand's marketing has been strongly rooted in its heritage, taking advantage of its visibility in stylish retro television shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, as well as the surge in popularity of retro cocktails based on brown spirits, such as the Manhattan, being served more frequently at bars. That emphasis on history will not abate, Mr. Tucker said, but the new campaign, created by agency The Brooklyn Brothers, is an addition to the overall marketing efforts.

Canadian Club's new spokesman was based partly on a character from NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, Mr. Tucker said. The gruff, mustachioed Ron Swanson is a Libertarian who enjoys woodworking and grilling, and dislikes emotional intimacy. The Chairman also sports a mustache, frowning countenance, and strict ideas of what it means to be a man.

The masculinity being pushed in many of these companies' advertisements is also retro in a way. Emotionally engaged, modern men are nowhere in sight.

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"It speaks to timeless qualities that all men can relate to," Joe Delvecchio, brand director at Corby Distilleries, said of the Wiser's ads. "The personality is a bit witty and tongue-in-cheek."

The same is true for the Canadian Club campaign, which will run on specialty television nationwide, expanding to conventional networks in 2013. It is also being tested in U.S. markets, as well as online and in social media, where the Chairman will dispense "whisky wisdom" in Twitter-friendly lengths. "Everything in moderation, except bacon," is one. Or, "wearing white socks with dress shoes is like dousing your rib-eye in ketchup."

The idea is to tie the whisky product to the image of the kind of man the target customer hopes to become: The target here is young, as it was with Wiser's, from legal drinking age up to age 34. The idea is to appeal to a guy on the verge of manhood, who will continue to drink beer but may want to try out a more sophisticated tipple. By courting the younger demographic the company is also hoping to groom lifelong brand loyalty.

"If you're able to engage a younger consumer target, the conventional marketing theory is you recruit them and engage them and maintain a relationship," Mr. Tucker said. "They're looking to have a great laugh. One way to do that is to elevate their masculinity and really flaunt it. … It's a campaign we really believe in. It's a ton of fun."

But this focus on men could go beyond the world of whisky. Wiser's Mr. Delvecchio used to work in the consumer packaged goods industry, where the focus has always been on moms. But he's seen a shift slowly beginning.

"Men are becoming more sophisticated and refined in terms of how they shop," he said. "They have been somewhat forgotten because they don't tend to be the principle gatekeeper or shopper. That's starting to change, in multiple industries."

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