Southern Comfort

Dixie chic is giving regional titles like Southern Living a lift

Along with expanding the magazine’s licensing footprint (which grew 33 percent this year alone), Bierman aims to modernize the brand by embracing the so-called “new South.” With its September issue, Southern Living unveiled a redesign led by creative director Bob Perino that includes more stylish typography, more photo-centric layouts, new columns and features like a quarterly style section spotlighting local boutique owners and more integrated regional pages. (For its five geographic editions, ranging from the mid-Atlantic to the Deep South, editors create some 500 pages of locally targeted editorial each year.) On the digital side, a new blog dubbed The Daily South is populated with local content, while new video series feature edit staffers. (In the Webby Award-winning Deep-Fried Fridays, test kitchen editor Norman King fries up everything from candy corn to Jack Daniel’s.)

Readers have taken to the recast content. “I LOVE the graphically smart, wonderful articles, etc. issues you now have inside SL,” one fan raved on the brand’s Facebook page, though another complained of “cluttered” pages.

Media buyers have also taken note. “The brand has been contemporized and revived,” says Brenda White, Starcom svp and print activation director, adding that the retooling has attracted not only new readers but also fashion and beauty advertisers. (Procter & Gamble’s skin-care line Olay and the clothing retailer Coldwater Creek recently signed large custom marketing deals.)

With the book’s makeover comes new blood, including executive editor Hunter Lewis, who last month bolted Brooklyn and a job at Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit for Birmingham. (Lewis is far from the only New York expat to head south. Garden & Gun editor DiBenedetto recently recruited Mary Tilt Hammond away from her post as executive director of integrated marketing at Hearst’s Elle for the same job in Charleston.)

With his haute cuisine background, including running Saveur’s test kitchen, Lewis has already begun expanding Southern Living’s traditional palate. In his first week on the job, he supervised a tasting that included shrimp and halloumi skewers, leading some staffers to ask what, exactly, halloumi is. (Assuring colleagues it wasn’t really so exotic, Lewis reported that the Greek cheese made for grilling can be found in any Whole Foods.)

Lewis believes his readers are ready for more international flavor. “Southern food is not all bacon and bourbon and pimento cheese—you can go down the highway and eat a bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall,” says the North Carolina native. Still, he stresses the importance of preserving regional authenticity. “You can’t be doing fusion food for the sake of being cute and different,” he says. “It’s got to feel true.”

While Southern Living strives to stay true to its roots as it expands nationally, there have been missteps. When Bierman came on board two years ago, he felt the brand had “strayed.” His mission—“to bring the South back into Southern Living,” as he describes it—includes featuring more local personalities and businesses. When editors made their picks for a holiday guide, Bierman requested that a trendy national brand of aftershave be replaced with a homegrown variety from Lubbock, Texas-based Dirty Deeds Soaps, to drive sales to a local business.

“Our broader mission is to make this brand become a more robust economic engine for the region,” explains publisher Greg Schumann, another transplant from New York and the former publisher of Bonnier Corp.’s Parenting. “I think if the brand does that, all the other metrics will take care of themselves.”

As an example, every year the Southern Living Idea House features a show home in a different Southern town. Since June of this year, 20,000 people have visited the current model in Senoia, Ga.

The magazine’s strong Southern roots resonate with media buyers like Starcom’s White. “They’re striking a good balance between speaking to a national audience and a regional audience,” she says.

Whether appealing to natives by heralding the virtues of sorghum syrup or educating outsiders on Memphis vs. Kansas City barbecue, the Southern titles continue to expand outside their borders. Last month, Garden & Gun hosted a dinner in New York with interior designer Bunny Williams. And next June, Southern Living will sponsor the Big Apple BBQ Festival for the third time.

But what happens when foodies, fashionistas and film fans finally tire of the South and find a new province to fetishize?

In DiBenedetto’s view, the Southern magazines, with their commitment to quality content, will hold consumer interest for the long term. Says the editor, “If you’ve got a good product, you’re going to keep it. For us, it’s a wonderful thing.”