About 40 advertising professionals learned how to apply “the Seven Signs of Southerness” to business dealings at a Jackson Advertising Federation meeting earlier this month at Primos Northgate in Jackson.
“People outside the South tend to see Southerners as polarized black and white cultures,” said Benn Johnson, owner of Southerness Inc. of Birmingham, Ala., who talked about advantageous Southern traits in business settings. “But what we (Southerners) see is, for 300 years, we’ve had diverse groups of people sharing the land and figuring out ways to get along. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, where innovation is crucial, Southerners have an advantage over states where there’s an incredible sameness, like Utah or New Hampshire, where all of the thinking is alike. In the South, different heritages add to the mix.”
As a sociology major at the University of Alabama in the 1970s, Johnson, 48, began defining characteristics of Southerners and its impact on society. For 20 years he worked as a freelance market researcher studying the tastes of affluent Southern women and interviewed more than 100,000 women, resulting in volumes of research. He headed up consumer and market research for BellSouth and conducted a $2.3-million study for a New York City group before he was given an exclusive trademark for “The Seven Signs of Southerness,” findings of which have been validated by cultural anthropologists at Emory University and the University of Alabama.
“I worked on a multi-million dollar study for a large private Fortune 500 company researching what it would mean to be Southern in this new century,” he said.
“From there, I began to ask, what is Southerness? I found that, regardless of age, race, gender and socioeconomic levels, people were proud of being Southern and delighted to be here. And we all have seven traits in common. You don’t find (all of) these in other parts of the country.”
And, so, just what are these seven traits?
“Southerners have a great legacy of storytelling, which salespeople use well when presenting products or services instead of presenting simply cold facts,” Johnson said. “If you’re going in with a team of people in a business pitch or meeting, rely on your best storyteller to present the message.”
The trait also refers to written communication, which, he said, “Southerners are known for. After meetings, Southerners appreciate hand-written notes on business stationary. Making business personal in the South makes a big difference.”
“Mississippi has had an incredibly progressive period over the last 10 years, and that continues with all of the high-tech business coming into Jackson,” he said. “Southerners never sacrifice manners and charm for increased efficiency. They try to balance business with an appreciation of sensitivity for other people.”
“Old World” charm is reflected in the buildings in which businesses are housed in the South, because Southerners look for preservation opportunities “rather than plunking down the next corrugated steel building,” he said.
“Architecture and design in business settings salute a sense of place,” he said. “Steve Wynn and company did that with the Beau Rivage, by putting magnolia trees in the court, and tending to all of the details that celebrated the land they were going to do business in.”
(Note: The magnolias have since been removed from the upscale Biloxi gaming resort. The trees couldn’t survive the casino’s interior environment.)
“The core of Southern hospitality is flexibility — not having a rigid set of rules to go by,” Johnson said. “Flexibility is a great skill in business. We say, ‘tell us how you want service delivered or a product created.’ Then we listen and respond. Every time a client presents you with a concern, there’s not a pat answer. It makes Southerners phenomenal in service industries.”
“If you’re in a family-run business, like Bryan Meats, it’s great to remind people that you are in a family-run business, because they are more trusted and typically more committed to the community, which is very important in the South. We want to know people are going to be with us 20 years from now and are not here just make money and move on.”
(Note: Bryan Foods, which was founded by the Bryan family in West Point, is a division of Sara Lee Corp.)
Southerners are not comfortable with boasting, Johnson said, adding “boasting seems like a Yankee thing to us. In the South, we don’t like to hear, ‘I am self-made,’ we want to hear how other people helped.”
“Embracing differences is important, just as it’s important to get people from very different perspectives to add their thoughts to whatever you’re trying to innovate and creatively manage,” he said.
“In the South, we want to blend in fun and pleasure with what we’re doing in the workplace,” Johnson said. “Southerners don’t see work as the ultimate end. Southerners see work as a way to have more time to do the things we want to do. In business, we look for ways to mix business with pleasure by taking clients to play golf, see Ole Miss play, throw company parties and picnics, even give more emphasis to the break rooms.”
Johnson has turned family-operated Southerness Inc. into a merchandising mecca, which creates and markets an upscale line of luxury items, from sleeping powders (for dusting bed linens) to gourmet food items. Under the direction of master perfumer Phillipe Lorson, he created a women’s perfume that “bottles the South.”
The fragrance includes a blend of 12 floral essences from Southern states, including Mississippi’s magnolia. A men’s fragrance, “1768,” consists of Southern herbs and botanicals and was named for the year people recognized the South as “being different,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.