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Maker’s Misses the Mark
Maker’s Misses the Mark

It’s no secret around here that I’m a bourbon fan. I completed the entire bourbon trail in a single weekend last year. And I even write a monthly bourbon column called No Bull Bourbon for the Hobart online literary journal.

So when I heard this week that Maker’s Mark reversed their decision to lower the ABV of their flagship bottle from 45% to 42% due to a social media outcry, I jumped on the chance to talk about it here (my preference for Blanton’s notwithstanding).

A shot of backstory
A couple weeks ago, Maker’s announced plans to dilute their bourbon in the face of heightened demand and short supply.

You see, it takes at least four years in a barrel for bourbon to be worth a bottle, and in the case of Maker’s Mark, it’s more like six years. Apparently, when anticipating demand back in 2007, they didn’t count on the rise of establishments like The Libertine and Cerulean that are building a new vigor around cocktails and mixed drinks.

So Maker’s announced their plans to dilute and stretch their stock, and the social media sphere went crazy, drawing a lot of comparisons to the mid-’80s New Coke debacle.

After a few days, Maker’s issued a reversal and statement of apology:

We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand—and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.
(Full text)

It’s good PR, but is it good business?
From a PR standpoint, this is a picture-perfect example of Kate’s recent advice about responding to brand backlash. They showed tremendous goodwill to their fans, and were humble and honest when admitting their mistake. As The Blaze reported, the reversal announcement on the Maker’s Mark Facebook page garnered more than 14,000 Likes and 2,000 comments in just shy of a couple hours.

But what makes good PR sense, doesn’t always make good business sense.

Sure, public opinion of Maker’s is mostly favorable again. There are still a few who seem slighted beyond repair, who maybe took the drop in ABV a little too personally. But for the most part, Maker’s has renewed itself, and in some cases, instilled a sense of greater trust and respect for listening to their fans.

But what about in six months when those fans can’t find Maker’s at their local package store? Or when their bar tab for those after hours Manhattans jumps $5 dollars?

Broader brand definitions require broader thinking
With the ever-expanding definition of “brand,” managing a brand has a lot more moving pieces than it used to. What works for one aspect of the brand may have seriously detrimental results for other aspects.

For example, Maker’s Mark has made its mark by being a premier bourbon that’s available. No matter how divey a bar you find yourself in, you can always count on at least a bottle of Maker’s tucked away on the second shelf. And that availability has been as much a part of its brand as its ABV. Not only that, but The Washington Post notes howMaker’s Mark propped up the other Beam, Inc. brands by acting as a revolving door for distributors.

So how will this move play out for Maker’s Mark and the greater Beam, Inc. brand and business? It’s obviously too early to say. The short-term looks great.

But this could also mean the shortages will come sooner as people and distributors rush out to stock up. Maker’s may ultimately have to blend younger barrels into their stock to stay on the shelves. Or Beam, Inc. may have to shift its overall strategy while it catches up with demand over the next few years. Maybe it’ll be Knob Creek’s time to shine.

I assume and hope that Rob and Bill Samuels thought hard about all the implications before signing the reversal. But this may well turn out to be one of those times where it’s okay to let people be mad at you for a news cycle.