After backlash from customers, the producer of Maker’s Mark bourbon is reversing a decision to cut the amount of alcohol in bottles of its famous whiskey. Rob Samuels, Maker’s Mark’s Chief Operating Officer, said that the company is restoring the alcohol volume of its product to its historic level of 45 percent, or 90 proof.
The move to reduce the alcohol content of Maker’s Mark came as the company struggled to keep up with unanticipated demand for its product. In the original announcement, the company described the process leading up to the decision, which included extensive testing to determine the amount of watering-down of the recipe necessary to meet customers’ increased demands for their favorite whiskey. “The change in alcohol volume called for the recipe and process to stay the same, except for a ‘touch more water’ to be added when the whiskey comes out of the barrel for bottling,” Samuels said.
For seasoned marketing professionals, the decision was difficult to understand and heralded back memories of another time in history when another beverage bottler with overwhelming advantages in market share and millions of satisfied customers decided to change the recipe in order to capture an even larger and therefore more profitable share of the cola markets. As is often said, “The rest is history.” Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the decision was that the decision to embark on the products alteration was approved by Samuels, who happens to be the grandson of the brand’s founder, not just Maker’s Mark’s corporate owners. Apparently, the descendent of the legendary bottler was not an accomplished student of history.
Luckily, the brand has found a way to spin the debacle into something positive. The well-established whiskey maker had invested wisely in social media, and when the original announcement was made on Maker’s Mark’s Facebook page it drew thousands of responses from outraged and disappointed customers. The overwhelming negative response prompted a reversal of the decision to return production to the original recipe. That decision drew more than 14,000 “likes” and 2,200 comments within two hours of the announcement, helping to avert much of the potential damage to the brand and to its sales position in the market. Less than a week later Maker’s Mark tweeted, “You spoke. We listened.,” with a link to its Facebook apology. The phrase then became a popular hashtag. Customers went from feeling abandoned to listened to and respected in record time, and Maker’s Mark retweeted their messages.
Maker’s Mark Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels, the founder’s son, said “the company focused almost exclusively on not altering the taste of the bourbon while stretching the available product and didn’t consider the emotional attachment that customers have to the brand and its composition.” Rob Samuels added “Our focus was on the supply problem. That led to us focusing on a solution. We got it totally wrong.”
A more comprehensive message to its customers on the company’s website this week read “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. We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.”
It is truly difficult to understand why company decisions makers insist on making core changes to a product or brand that is clearly working, particularly to one that has produced so much demand and success in the marketplace. Whether in response to a production problem, an attempt to increase sales, or to target a new segment, flawed strategies come at a significant price to even the most well-established and venerable brands. Before making changes to core competencies, we should all stop and take a breath. If it’s not broken, don’t insist on messing it up. To use a well-worn adage, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” It may pay to be better students of history in order to be more effective leaders in the future.