Southern Comfort

Dixie chic is giving regional titles like Southern Living a lift

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Across the South, the start of fall can only mean one thing: college football, and along with it the time-honored tradition of tailgating. Riding the enormous popularity of the weekend ritual, Southern Living recently kicked off its own tailgating season.

In the kind of cross-media touchdown that has boosted newsstand sales 6.6 percent to 137,962 in the first half of this year alone, Southern Living published the Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook, which became a national best-seller thanks to recipes like Woo Pig Sooie Ham-Stuffed Biscuit. On television, an hour-long special on the Great American Country channel featured tailgate parties ranging from the University of Alabama’s 1,000-tent encampment on the campus quad to a University of Texas meet and greet with team mascot Bevo, the longhorn steer. Tapping into football frenzy, the 2.8 million-circulation magazine chalked up an astonishing half-million votes in its South’s Best Tailgate contest, pulling in some 80,000 ballots by smartphone alone. (Using their devices, fans could scan images of a team’s helmet from the pages of the magazine or Digimarc-enabled posters.)

This being Southern Living, it isn’t just readers who get riled up. Across the bucolic Birmingham, Ala., campus of the magazine’s parent, Time Inc.’s Southern Progress unit, staffers decorate their offices with the same watermarked posters, imploring passersby to vote for their favorites. Over by the magazine’s bustling test kitchen, one can find kitchen director Rebecca Gordon, the quintessential Southern belle—all smiles, pearls and perfectly coiffed blonde tresses. But the elegant look belies a rabid obsession with the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Food brings people together,” says Gordon, who posts recipes for concoctions such as the Alabama Yella Hammer cocktail on the blog TideFanfare. “At Southern Living, we’ve always celebrated the fact that Southern food is so closely connected to family and traditions.”

One floor above the kitchen in the editorial offices, more tailgating posters are displayed alongside layouts for upcoming articles, including one on a home-style Christmas dinner and another on a Lilly Pulitzer-themed party in Palm Beach.

Southern Methodist University pride rules for executive editor Jessica Thuston, an Oklahoma native whose new baby and recently renovated kitchen are featured in the magazine’s “Big Ideas for Small Spaces” issue, one of 12 yearly newsstand-only specials. Nearby, managing editor Candace Higginbotham, a 22-year Southern Progress veteran, proudly displays an Auburn University poster.

Editor in chief Lindsay Bierman also got into the spirit, tacking up a University of Virginia sign—despite his Michigan roots. A design aficionado, he fell for the South while studying for his masters in architecture at UVA. He would go on to work for Southern Progress titles including the now-defunct Southern Accents and Cottage Living, along with Coastal Living. “The South has a deep culinary tradition, distinct style and way of life that is very hospitable and gracious,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to come back here.”

It’s no surprise that Southern Living editors are passionate (to put it mildly) about their home turf. But national audiences have also cottoned to Dixie, with its focus on family, friends, food and home. This year, The Help went from best-seller to box-office hit while Taylor Swift, the Zac Brown Band and the Avett Brothers dominated the Billboard charts, TNT revived Dallas, NBC debuted nighttime soap Nashville, and trendy new restaurants serving biscuits and barbecue popped up in Brooklyn.

The South clearly is rising again, which has given the region’s magazines a distinct lift in the face of an industry-wide slump. Read by one in five Southern women, Southern Living has expanded its circ beyond the South by 11 percent over the past four years, while 22 percent of readers overall live outside the region, according to GfK MRI’s readership survey.

Over at buzzy, aspirational lifestyle book Garden & Gun, 45 percent of readers live outside the Southeast, per an Ipsos Mendelsohn subscriber survey, and last month the magazine added 130 newsstands in New York alone. Over the last two years, the Charleston, S.C.-based magazine upped circulation by 20 percent to 261,854 and won a 2011 National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Known for stunning photography and high-profile contributors like Pat Conroy and John T. Edge, the five-year-old magazine recently inked a three-title deal with HarperCollins for a how-to book, a cookbook and an anthology of its popular “Good Dog” columns.

“Most people in the media assume that a really good magazine can’t come out of somewhere other than New York City,” says editor in chief David DiBenedetto, who believes that the South’s deep literary tradition has also burnished the allure of the regional titles.

Then there is the politically minded Texas Monthly, which won National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and General Excellence in 2010 and 2009, respectively. The October issue features a cover story on the University of Texas, a history of Jerry Jones’ takeover of the Dallas Cowboys and a profile of the state’s first female U.S. Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Its literary yet newsy mix helped boost newsstand sales 9 percent (the magazine’s total circ now stands at 312,135), while ad pages and revenue grew nearly 7 percent in the first half of 2012. That’s a big improvement versus the magazine industry at large, where single copy sales fell 9.6 percent, ad dollars dipped 3.8 percent and ad pages sunk 8.8 percent in the same period.

Just as the nickname of its Alabama home is “The Heart of Dixie,” Southern Living is the grand dame of Southern magazines. As Texas interior designer Vanessa Evermon explains on her blog: “Growing up, we had two things on our coffee table—the Holy Bible and Southern Living magazine.” With its circ of 2.8 million, the magazine is the 17th largest in the country.

While other large-reach titles such as Reader’s Digest and Prevention have been forced to cut rate base because of declining newsstand sales and subscriptions, Southern Living has managed to increase its circ every year for a decade. What’s more, over the past year the magazine added 179 national and regional advertisers, including both new clients and ones that had been dormant for two or more years. Ad revenue rose 5.7 percent as ad pages declined 3.1 percent, compared to an 8.8 percent drop in pages industry-wide.

“The South is clearly having a moment,” says Sid Evans, group editor of Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Division, also based in Birmingham. A Memphis native and the editor in chief of Garden & Gun from its launch in 2007 until 2011, Evans says the South’s strong cultural identity is a key selling point of Southern Living. The magazine, he says, “has an advantage because of this built-in connection to the reader, whereas a lot of other magazines are building a brand around an idea that they have to continually sell to the reader.”

The connection runs deep. Since its launch in 1966, Southern Living has built a massive empire, inserting the brand into nearly every aspect of daily life. Even though brand extensions have become common across the magazine industry, Southern Living’s stable of products is formidable. Its readers can live in a home based on one of Southern Living’s 1,000-plus house plans and constructed by a Southern Living-approved builder. After whipping up dinner based on a recipe in a Southern Living cookbook (there are 56 Southern Living titles for sale through publisher Oxmoor House), they can eat off china from Ballard Designs’ Southern Living line. (The Ballard licensing deal was renewed for another four years following the huge success of last spring’s debut collection.) After washing up with a Southern Living towel, readers can curl up on a Southern Living-branded mattress pad swathed in sheets from the magazine’s bedding collection, a top seller at Dillard’s. Outside the house, they can place a Southern Living planter beside their Southern Living patio furniture.

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.”

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.