A marketing contradiction, the traditional spirit that appeals to the young, Jack Daniel's success is unparelled in the drinks world. As other dark spirits flounder in the face of white supremacy, Jeannette Stamper investigates the appeal of the Tennessee whiskey and its marketing secrets.

We're coming to the end of a dark age. White spirits (especially the all-conquering vodka) continue to prosper, aided and abetted by RTDs - which surely everyone, now, takes seriously. Niche markets like single malts and aged rum show some promise, but the big Scotch brands are now reduced to battling it out for a larger slice of a dwindling pie. And lets not even talk about Cognac.

But you wouldn't know it in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The town's most famous product, Jack Daniel's, has shown double-digit growth in ten of the last eleven years - figures even Enron would settle for. Indeed it is the only major spirits brand in Brown-Forman's portfolio to have shown any growth in 2001. So what makes Jack Daniel's different?

First of all, to satisfy any pedants out there, we should be clear about one thing: Jack Daniel's is not Bourbon, it's a Tennessee whiskey. But, while this distinction may mean a lot to Kentuckians, it doesn't weigh too heavily on the minds of consumers in London or Cape Town. According to Jim Murphy, vice-president and global marketing director for Jack Daniel's: "Jack Daniels is certainly perceived as an American whiskey, but the brand really transcends category definitions. Most Jack Daniel's drinkers would probably identify themselves as Jack Daniel's drinkers not Bourbon or whiskey drinkers."

The figures can be confusing because it suits many Bourbon makers to exclude JD from their definition of the market they operate in - as it makes their performance look more impressive. And it suits JD to go along with it, as the brand is built specifically on its Tennessee heritage, and their performance looks good anyway. But in the real world, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's are competitors - suggest they share research and see what reaction you get. But, without swallowing the Bourbon red herring, we can acknowledge that Jack Daniel's really is a one-off.

Just about every other major international spirit brand (Bacardi, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Gordon's etc) has achieved much of its success by becoming, as much as possible, generic. The Holy Grail for their marketing departments is to have consumers around the world asking for their brand by name: 'Bacardi (not 'rum') and Coke (does anyone say 'cola'?)'. This both demonstrates and perpetuates high awareness, and represents that dream scenario where consumers are actually telling retailers face-to-face that they want to buy your brand - the most powerful sales message of all.

Jack Daniel's achieved this in many markets some time ago - not because it out-fought all the other American whiskeys, but because it created a category of its own - a young category which separates it from the ageing image of dark spirits generally.

A prima facie glance at the way the Jack Daniel's brand has expressed itself seems to explain nothing. Tradition (hardly a youthful concept) has been at the centre of all its marketing for decades. The black and white campaign (created and still executed by Arnold Advertising in St Louis), laid out in the classic 1950s formula of picture-headline-body copy, has altered a little at different times in different markets, but has always made a virtue of how old-fashioned the denizens of Lynchburg are. If a musty old image can be the downfall of Scotch and Cognac among the young (which is widely assumed to be the case), how come it works so well for Jack Daniel's?

Jim Murphy has his own theory: "The reason it works for us and not for Scotch is because Scotch carries the baggage of being 'my father's whisky'." In other words, the consumer's experience of seeing the brand consumed can be far more authentic than when they see it advertised. For many young consumers around the world that means hearing those cries of 'JD and Coke' at the bar, rather than finding it in their parents drinks cabinet.

As Murphy points out, we can also add to this "the depiction of the brand in popular culture, such as movies and music." Anyone who's seen Oliver Stone's The Doors will remember Jack Daniel's as the whiskey Jim Morrison chose to drink himself to death with - what greater recommendation could there be to young men around the world?

There is another crucial factor that's easy to overlook. The US is the most powerful brand in the world - even though (perhaps because?) Americans can be notoriously bad at understanding the way the rest of the world sees them. Scotland and France, though powerful brands in their own right, could never compete with the allure of Americana - of which Jack Daniels, like Bud or Coke, is now an inalienable part.

And let's not forget the taste. If there is a law in flavour-profiling right now, it's that young people like sweeter, less challenging drinks - see the success of Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer, and even many New World wines. "Many of these brands are more user-friendly [than dark spirits], and do not require the consumer to go through the process of acquiring a taste for the product," says Murphy. Jack Daniel's, though it has no RTD sidekick ('no immediate plans'), can at least have benefited from its relatively sweet, uncomplicated taste.

These disparate ingredients essentially add up to one thing: Jack Daniel's is a classic whose time has come. Jim Murphy is well aware of this. "While the story we tell has remained the same, we have adapted the way we present it to consumers around the world. The advertising works because it is true and unpretentious, it is an oasis of genuineness in a sea of hype."

The marketing guys in Lynchburg have done well to navigate their brand through differing eras and markets, without diluting its classic status. But it's worth remembering the example of Levi's, the unstoppable traditional all-American brand that dominated its market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Firmly fixed to its core values, the brand suffered badly when those values went out of fashion.

Genuineness can be a kind of hype too, but at least for the time being there's no shortage of drinkers ready to believe it.

From research in the UK (JD's largest export market)
'Which, if any, of the following do you drink, either at home, or in a pub/club/restaurant?'

Age (yrs)  Famous Grouse(%) Jack Daniel's(%)
18-24     5    24
25-34    8    22
35-44    10    9
45-54    13    8
55-64    21    4
65+    26    7

Source: Keynote 2001, BMRB Access 2001