The region of the United States we refer to as the South has, to put it mildly, a history of being misunderstood. At the speed of its naturally languid pace, the complexities of Southern identity and marketing have transformed over time from nostalgic myth into actual realities. We’ve seen what some might define as the “Real South” become less prevalent, in favor of a Southern experience that holds true to the ideals that speak to the goodness of life below the Mason–Dixon, while eschewing the character traits of the past.
While there are noted differences between consumers in the southern United Sates and consumers from the other regions, Southerners appreciate many of the things their Western and Eastern counterparts do as well: honesty, authenticity, a narrative arc and, probably most of all, factual representations of themselves in the media and in marketing.
If the mythic stories of good ol’ boys and Southern belles were able to transform into realistic traits over a period of time, so too have the negative connotations the rest of the country holds for the South, sensitive issues for Southern citizens and near fact for Northerners. Pervasive ideas of Southerners being less educated or less sophisticated do nothing more than reinforce the ideas of a small few who ignorantly hold onto these old ideas and highlight those stagnant mind frames to those of you who are wise enough to know that Southerners are, in fact, shrewd and intelligent consumers. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 16: Sports and Recreation, we learn that:
“Southerners are more likely to read Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Shooting Times, Gun World and American Cooner than Ski, Skiing, Dune Buggies, Cycle World, Water Skiier, Yachting, or Salt Waters Sports. In the South, one also finds fewer miles driven per year (a stand-in for billboard advertising), less television watching and radio listening, and low levels of memberships in sports and hobby groups. From all indications, the modern South is still holding on to vestiges of a preindustrial folk culture in its leisure.”
Simply put, Southern consumers can be difficult to reach because they don’t respond to the types of communication that their counterparts in other states would respond too. Even provocative campaigns and attempts at shocking viral relevancy prove to be less than useful with them. However, where there are challenges, there exist opportunities. Ways to reach consumers in the South rise out of the areas where attempts fall short.
Deenie Hartzog, Southern native and advertising copy director at Vogue, said, “Southerners are generally a proud people—proud of where they came from, what they stand for, and what they’ve created for themselves.” Take into account also that, while the South often gets reduced to a blanket idea and term, the region is made of states, cities, and towns that all differ greatly from one another. In order to speak directly to these groups of people, your brand will need to develop a deep, almost personal relationship with your consumers and develop a narrative arc for your growth and development that makes these customers feel like they are a part of your story. As Hartzog says,
“. . . [S]outherners are open to consuming information. They’re not cynical the way big-city goers are. They don’t yet believe that they’ve seen it all, and they are usually interested to see more. It’s less of an ‘impress me’ attitude and more about, ‘teach me something I don’t know.’ I find that [S]outherners will take the time to engage.”
For example, take a brand like Harley-Davidson, a company whose ideals some would say are synonymous with Southern values. For years, the venerable motorcycle brand has been synonymous with toughness, freedom on the open road, and durable American craftsmanship. This is a storyline that has taken Harley Davidson years to craft and get consumers to buy into. More recently, however, we have seen Harley Davidson stray away from those brand ideals, which had afforded them so much good fortune, in favor of sleeker and cheaper bikes for consumers who still can’t afford those price tags, while alienating some of their core customer base.
Just as it takes some time to gain trust as a friend, it takes some time to create a storyline for your customers to follow and buy into. It’s said that Southerners are natural storytellers, so you will find yourself embraced by the South when you engage consumers in their natural, narrative element. Harken back to the rich history that exists in the South while showing that you are ready to progress past the Old South into the new Southern experience.