On Valentine’s Day, a Forbes headline asked: Did Maker’s Mark commit brand suicide?
“What [chairman emeritus, Bill] Samuels is saying, in essence, is, ‘We’re selling all the bourbon we have, so to increase unit sales we’re going to water it down a little… It gets worse. Samuels goes on to say that Maker’s Mark customers won’t notice the difference.'”
(It wasn’t the first time in recent memory Maker’s Mark was a little tone deaf in responding to its fans. The week before Christmas, it took their ad agency nearly a day to respond to threats of a boycott over racist allegations and a lawsuit filed against Maker’s Mark Lounge in Louisville, an establishment which is not owned or operated by the bourbon brand and never has been.)
If it wasn’t about the taste, was it about the money? Some customers objected. If the alcohol content was going down, would they get a price break? Critics said, just go ahead and raise the price — that’s what any premium brand would do. No, the taste and the price would remain the same.
The first response read:
“Some people are asking why we didn’t just raise the price if demand is an issue. We don’t want to price Maker’s Mark out of reach. Dad’s intention when he created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, not to make it exclusive.”
But that didn’t ring genuine to some. One bourbon insider told us, “I have a hard time believing that they’re doing it for the reasons that they claim. Even if Maker’s is running into a shortage, the claim that the ‘intention when [Bill Samuels] created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, ‘not to make it exclusive’ isn’t true. Here’s one of their early ads (‘It tastes expensive…and it is.’:
“Maybe that’s their intention now. There’s a lot of value in being in the mid- to low- price range, especially for a decent quality product.”
Our bourbon source continues,”I think they’re looking at 1,000,000+ cases sold per year which gives them a lot of momentum. Are most of the customers even going to know that they reduced ABV? Probably not. As they are claiming, it probably does taste the same – or at least close enough that very few people can tell the difference. And since most of the taxes are assessed based on ABV they’re effectively just boosting their bottom line by a little under 3%. It’s a good business move but all of the ‘reasons’ for it are bunk.”
That’s the problem, Forbes pointed out:
“Do you really want to go on the record as saying the palates of your customers are so unrefined that they can’t tell the difference when the whiskey is diluted? In reality, in blind taste tests most people probably can’t tell the difference between similar colas, beers, whiskeys, etc. Nevertheless, brands still strive to maximize their taste differentiation. Can you imagine Coke saying, ‘We could change our formula a little, or even put Pepsi in our cans, and not many of our customers would notice.’?
Today, in what is typically a Sunday social media dead zone, they’ve announced, “You spoke. We listened….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.”
The response goes on to echo the 80s era Doritos campaign (we’ll make more!), “we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we’ll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery….”
Knob Creek (which, along with Maker’s Mark, is part of the Beam Global empire), experienced a similar shortage in 2009, and responded with an ad campaign apologizing to fans — and the media — for the Drought. ‘Knob Creek Runs Dry’ was the Guardian headline. PR Pros typically lauded their clever “Thanks for nothing,” ad campaign, alongside the marketing stunt of mailing out empty bottles to spirits writers. (Spirits writers lapped it up, by the way.)
Harpers quoted Beam president Bill Newlands as saying during the 2009 drought:
“Much as we want to keep product available, we would never compromise on quality, or bottle at lower proof to fill a short-term gap.” [emphasis added]
“Beam’s Kentucky operations include distilleries with bottling capability in Clermont, Frankfort and Loretto, as well as a distillery in Boston, Ky. The company also recently completed a multi-year $30 million investment in the new Jim Beam American Stillhouse visitors’ experience and state-of-the-art global innovation center in Clermont. Since 2005, Beam has invested $128 million in its manufacturing footprint in Kentucky and added 200 new jobs to the Commonwealth.”
Beam’s investment in staying ahead of trends is substantial. By Sunday afternoon, social media response was divided among fans who lauded the reversal as an example of a brand listening to their customers; media pros who lauded the reversal as a savvy step in damage control; and cynics who insisted the entire nontroversy was one giant free ad for Maker’s Mark.
Hal Riney rolled over in his grave the second this landed in the inboxes of Maker’s Mark Ambassadors:
“Lately we’ve been hearing from many of you that you’ve been having difficulty finding Maker’s Mark in your local stores. Fact is, demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we’re running very low on supply. We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years, nor that demand for Maker’s Mark would grow even faster.
We wanted you to be the first to know that, after looking at all possible solutions, we’ve worked carefully to reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by just 3%. This will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker’s Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity.”
It even said, “Thanks for your support.”
Watered down?! screamed the headlines.
Bourbon and New Coke?
Are they taking our guns too?!
Polyester in our Louis Vuitton?!
Response No. 1 from Maker’s Mark
“Since we’re a one-brand company that’s never purchased bourbon from other distillers when supplies are short, forecasting is very difficult. Over the years, our one variable that helps us avoid market shortages has been the age of the whisky in the Maker’s bottle. That range is between five years nine months and seven years. Because Maker’s Mark is aged to taste, Dad never put a specific age statement on the bottle. It wasn’t the age that mattered; it was the taste, the quality and the consistency.
“Some people are asking why we didn’t just raise the price if demand is an issue. We don’t want to price Maker’s Mark out of reach. Dad’s intention when he created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, not to make it exclusive. And, with regard to the price, the value of Maker’s Mark isn’t set by alcohol volume. It’s about the quality of the recipe and ingredients that go into it, all the handcrafting that goes into the production and how it tastes.”
Response No. 2 from Maker’s Mark
Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. 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.
The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we’ll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery….
Rob Samuels Bill Samuels, Jr
Chief Operating Officer Chairman Emeritus