Wild Turkey takes 'Give 'em the bird' pitch to TV

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Wild Turkey's first-ever television ad campaign in the U.S. offers a new twist to giving someone the bird.

The 157-year-old brand is the latest Kentucky bourbon making a splash on television, showing the once-stodgy category has a sense of humor in projecting a more hip image.

It comes as bourbon rides a wave of popularity, due in part to the comeback of cocktails appealing to younger adults. And it's a sign bourbon is willing to muscle into the marketing terrain of vodka and other spirits.

In the ad debuting Tuesday, Wild Turkey spreads its "Give 'em the Bird" marketing campaign that first appeared in print and on billboards last year. The commercial shows a young bartender's reluctance to obey a seasoned barman's direction to "just give 'em the bird" when a tough-looking customer walks in. The novice soon realizes it's another term for serving up Wild Turkey.

"I come from Europe, where you normally order a gin and tonic and you don't care what gin you're drinking," said Umberto Luchini, head of marketing for Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey. "You come into the U.S. and it's all about calling brands. Hence, 'Give 'em the Bird' is another way of calling Wild Turkey in a bar."

The ad, running on such cable outlets as ESPN, Comedy Central, Spike, TNT and TBS, is the latest multimillion-dollar investment in Campari's revamping of the storied Wild Turkey brand made at its distillery near Lawrenceburg in central Kentucky.

It also adds momentum to the trend among some bourbon makers to turn increasingly to television and digital advertising.

"The stories that bourbon has as its heritage are really difficult to tell on a billboard, and really difficult to tell on a flat, two-dimensional piece of paper in print," said Kevin George, chief marketing officer for Beam Inc., parent of Jim Beam and Maker's Mark bourbons.

Wild Turkey's foray into television comes about a year after competitor Maker's Mark uncapped its first national TV campaign. Maker's Mark sales have risen consistently for years, and the TV ads are increasing brand awareness and demand, George said. So the brand has extended its pitch on more cable networks this year, he said.

Beam, based in Deerfield, Ill., also is running TV ads promoting its high-end Jim Beam Devil's Cut, featuring whiskey extracted from the aging-barrel wood that is blended with Jim Beam bourbon. In June, the company plans to go on TV to promote its Red Stag brand, a specialty whiskey that infuses natural black cherry flavors into bourbon, George said.

Last year, the TV campaign focused on the company's signature Jim Beam bourbon.

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. went on the air late last year to promote its Evan Williams bourbon and will be back with TV commercials in the second half of this year, said Susan Wahl, a senior brand manager for the company's whiskey portfolio.

Wild Turkey, which dabbled on TV last year in Australia, its second-biggest market, expects more rounds of television advertising in the U.S., Luchini said. It comes amid an ongoing resurgence of bourbon, also thanks to the popularity of premium, and pricier, brands, the revival of cocktails and strong demand overseas.

Last year, just over 16 million 9-liter cases of bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys sold in the U.S., up nearly 9 percent from 2006 and nearly 23 percent higher than 2001 sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

"We want to ride this trend," Luchini said. "And that's why we're getting bolder, a bit more aggressive."

Wild Turkey trails Jim Beam, Evan Williams and Maker's Mark in U.S. sales.

Vodka and rum outpace bourbon in spirits advertising on television, but bourbon is staking out more air time. Last year, bourbon marketing was up 58 percent on TV from 2010, with Beam and Maker's Mark the clear driving forces.

Now Wild Turkey is in the mix in the biggest marketing campaign in the brand's history. It's part of a big investment by Campari to expand sales.

Campari spent $50 million on a new distillery near Lawrenceburg that's capable of doubling production. It recently broke ground on a new $44 million packaging facility set to open in the fall of 2013.

One of the constants amid all the changes has been Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's longtime master distiller. In the early days when bourbon was first distilled on Wild Turkey Hill in Kentucky, he said, the most popular form of communication was shouting down the road.

"Now, after all those years, our brand can reach millions through ... television advertising," he said. "I guess some would call that progress."

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