By Christina Passariello And Max Colchester
(See Corrections and Amplifications item below.)
Irish whiskey brand Jameson wants its "history" to be a laughing matter.
A new television commercial, scheduled to start airing in the U.S. late this month, depicts Jameson founder John Jameson saving his distillery from a huge fire by single-handedly busting a dam and flooding 18th-century Dublin.
The spot is meant as a humorous reminder of Jameson's Irish heritage. At the end, Dubliners congratulate Mr. Jameson for rescuing the distillery despite the harm done to their homes and their city.
"If you can root the brand in truth and authentic ideas, I think consumers are looking for that kind of real substance," says Paul Duffy , chief executive of Pernod Ricard USA, an arm of Pernod Ricard /zigman2/quotes/204974112/delayed FR:RI -1.18% SA, the French wines-and-spirits company that owns Jameson.
The hitch: the distillery story is mostly fiction.
John Jameson—a Scotsman by birth—existed, but the rest of the tale is fabricated. There was no "Great Fire of 1789," and at no point did Mr. Jameson smash open a dam.
Alcoholic-drink makers have traditionally used their ads to convey a party vibe, as in the Budweiser tag line "King of Good Times." But to peddle premium spirits to a younger, hipper crowd, some brands have thrown tradition into the mix, oscillating between humor and a message focused more on heritage.
"It's like a yo-yo," says Brian Sudano , managing partner at BMC Strategic Associates, a beverage consulting firm. "Humor is memorable, and heritage is your right to exist."
Finding the right blend is particularly important for whiskeys and other aged alcohols, which are trying to ditch their slippers-and-pipe image to tap into a younger market. Jameson's campaign targets men ages 25 to 35.
"The risk of being too much in heritage is boring the hell out of people," says Mark Figliulo, chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, a unit of Omnicom Group /zigman2/quotes/209996569/composite OMC +3.43% Inc., which created the new Jameson commercial. "We don't want to say our whiskey is for sitting around and discussing the problems of the world."
Playing up history is one of the techniques marketers use to enhance a brand's aura and justify premium prices. A good story can catch the consumer's imagination. The luxury-fashion industry, for example, has long relied on images of manufacturing by hand to convey quality.
In the drinks sector, Brown Forman /zigman2/quotes/209049280/composite BF.A -0.09% Corp. promotes its Jack Daniel's whiskey brand with sepia images, harking back to its eponymous founder. It emphasizes that the whiskey is still made in Lynchburg, Tenn., where it was first distilled in 1866.
Scotch whisky label Johnnie Walker, owned by Diageo /zigman2/quotes/208129584/composite DEO +0.47% PLC, recently hired actor Robert Carlyle to tell the tale of the brand's founder, John Walker, as he strolls through the misty Scottish highlands. The British beverage group has touted the ties of Smirnoff vodka's founder to the Russian imperial court in the late 19th century. In 2004 Smirnoff filmed a TV spot featuring a Russian-themed manhunt that ends with the camera zooming in on a line on the vodka's bottle: "Purveyor to the Imperial Russian Court, 1886-1917."
Jameson has taken artistic license with its history for its commercial, the second in a series based on the Irish tall tale. The first spot, which premiered at the end of 2009, told the story of the founder facing off with a giant octopus to save a barrel of whiskey that fell overboard during the "Great Storm of 1781."
The second ad, which will be shown on cable channels such as ESPN and Comedy Central, was shot in Prague and cost $2 million. TBWA is already at work on the third in the series, which is expected out in the fall.
Little in either ad rings true. Among other things, Jameson is based in Cork, Ireland, not Dublin. "There's a major wink of an eye in our storytelling," says TBWA's Mr. Figliulo.
That storytelling is part of a broader effort by Pernod Ricard to elevate its brands, which also include Absolut vodka, Martell cognac, Kahlua liqueur and Mumm champagne. Consumers tend to buy these premium labels for the status they are perceived to confer as much as for the taste. Pernod Ricard is expected to report Thursday that sales and profit grew over the past six months, in part due to consumers trading up to more expensive versions of its spirits.
In Jameson's case, its quirky Irish character has helped it seize a 1.9% share of the overall whiskey market in the U.S. and 72% of the narrower Irish whiskey category, according to consulting firm Impact Databank.
"We like brands with heritage and authenticity," says Pernod Ricard's Mr. Duffy. "It gives it a bit more gravitas, so it's not a purely manufactured thing."
Corrections & Amplifications
Pernod Ricard SA's Irish whiskey brand Jameson was made in Dublin until the 1970s, when its distillery was turned into a tourist center. The whiskey is now made in Cork, Ireland. The story incorrectly implied that the brand had never been based in Dublin.