Jack Daniel’s…You’re Doing It Right

The article is written by Douglas Kaufman, Head of Communications at Cocoon Group

About 30 years ago, my parents took part in a Jack Daniels promotion in which they ‘bought’ one square foot (a foot is about 1/3 of a meter, for the non-Americans reading this article) of genuine Lynchburg, Tennessee property in exchange for their signature and address. The promotion featured a realistic looking title to the land and probably came with some sort of gift-giveaway -both of which were chuckled over, brought home, and promptly forgotten about.

Then the letters started coming. Every year or so, without warning, my parents would receive a letter addressed from Tennessee. Some were official looking documents. Some were typed letters. Yet others were handwritten notes scrawled across torn scraps of paper. None ever mentioned Jack Daniel’s.

  • There was the letter notifying my parents that they were part of the decennial Census.
  • There was a letter telling my parents not to worry. In spite of the recent flood, their (square foot of) property had not been damaged.
  • A note from a neighbor apologized for scruffing up our land during the local county fox-hunt. However the damage had been smoothed over as much as possible.
  • A letter came from Jake something or other, notifying my parents that his peanut crop had inadvertently spread into our property and he was giving us what he felt to be our share of the crop. My parents found a small cloth sack containing 2 peanuts in that particular envelope.
  • There was also the invitation to that year’s Sorghum festival. None of us can remember the name, but whoever invited my parents said that they shouldn’t miss the chance to come down and inspect their property. Unfortunately, my parents never did.

I repeat, Jack Daniel’s was never mentioned in these letters. And it always took my parents a few minutes to puzzle out that the letter was regarding their fictional property and that Jack Daniel’s promotion. But when dots were eventually connected, we all crowded around marvelling over the cleverness and creativity of the multi-year campaign.

Fast forward to this weekend…

Pic. Jack Daniel’s label design vs the cover of Patrick Wensink’s book Broken Piano for President, collage by Mashable

When I read about this letter from the Jack Daniel’s legal team to a copyright infringer, it immediately brought back a flood of memories of that quirky brilliant campaign. And I said to myself, «Of course Jack Daniel’s writes the wittiest, classiest C&D letter. They are a witty, classy brand obviously managed by a classy company.»

My reaction to the C&D letter is the very essence of what makes some brands truly great: consistent, single-minded execution that really speaks to the hearts of consumers and, apparently, employees.

There are actually two really impressive aspects of this C&D letter story (and there are multiple impressive aspects of the original campaign).

The first is that the Jack Daniel’s brand (i.e. gentleman southern hospitality) really does seem to be integrated into the company itself.  As a branding agency, we spend lots of time trying to convince our own clients (and ourselves, sometimes) that the brand isn’t just a piece of paper, design, or TV commercial. It is a vision of who our clients want to be as a company and it needs to be ‘lived’ by all members of that company. A failure to properly introduce the brand (or brands) to employees and make sure that they, as representatives of that brand, deliver on the experience, is a huge lost opportunity for those wonderful ‘aha’ moments like the one I describe above.

Jack Daniel’s folksy image isn’t just some surface-level marketing ploy. They really live it. And it manifests itself in departments, which are as far removed from marketing as possible. Let’s face it: the legal team has little incentive to charm the people they interact with. Yet when they do, the JD brand is exponentially stronger.

The second notable aspect of this letter is the sheer longevity of the brand. Brown Forman, the company that makes Jack Daniel’s, is a big company with a fair share of employee and agency turnover. The CEO has only been on the job since 2005. Yet the brand has endured. Had Jack Daniel’s re-branded itself every 3 years, or come up with a new positioning each time sales fell 5%, it would never have had the payoff, in my mind, that it did. Nor would it likely have been so well understood by Ms. Susman of their legal department.

In developing your own conclusions from this story, I suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

How well do various departments in your business understand your brand?

How are they implementing the brand in their own jobs and practices? Remember, people expect to see the brand come to life in commercials. They tune out. When they see it brought to life in your billing department, well, that’s impressive.

Is there a brand manifesto, credo, or other document that will continue to inspire and guide your company for the next 30 years, long after you are gone?


About the Author

Douglas Kaufman is the Head of Communications at Cocoon Group, which is an award-winning international agency offering a full selection of branding services.