By now you’ve heard all about Maker’s Mark’s decision in February to lower the proof of their iconic Kentucky Bourbon from 90 to 84 proof in response to soaring demand and waning supply. By now you’ve heard about the instantaneous indignation that erupted in the blogosphere, social media and mainstream media. You’ve heard that Maker’s overturned its own decision. The email to ‘ambassadors,’ members of the brand’s popular loyalty program, was signed by Bill Samuels Jr., son of the Bourbon’s founder, and his son Rob, chief operating officer. It seemed designed to convey contrition (To paraphrase: We were wrong, you were right, we’re listening, sorry we freaked you out). It was framed as an appreciation of its loyal consumers. (“Your trust, loyalty and passion are what's most important. We realize we can't lose sight of that.”)
Headlines hailed the verdict as a victory on par with the end of Prohibition: “Maker's Mark Says It Will NOT Be Watering Down Its Bourbon After Backlash,” (Business Insider) and “Whiskey Lovers Cheer As Maker’s Mark Restores Proof” (CBSNews.com).
I can only speculate, brand loyalty shot through the roof. Every potentially irate imbiber could claim Beam Global’s Maker’s as their own and have the sense they had a part in preserving the history and integrity of the brand. With that drinking became power.
Still, industry experts and marketing analysts railed. “Did Maker’s Mark Commit Brand Suicide?” asked the headline in Forbes Magazine. Writer Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, called out Samuels Jr. for his comment that the proof change was so minor that even long time brand devotees wouldn’t notice a difference on the palate. Critics asked: why not nip the supply-and-demand conundrum in the bud in traditional fashion and raise the price?
People talked, they cheered and felt like a team in the Us against The Man situation
So grew a suspicion that the reduce-the-proof announcement/retraction was a publicity stunt. Whether or not this is so will never be confirmed.
If the Maker’s incident was a gimmick, it was certainly an elaborate, meticulously thought out one. Insiders told me that they’d heard from dependable sources that new labels had been printed. It only takes a mention that something might vanish to generate a mad dash.
But perhaps the most valuable scrutiny was offered in a Washington Post feature that ran one day after the reversal announcement. Headlined “Bourbonomics 101: What the Maker's Mark Dilution Debacle Says About Corporate Strategy,” this clear-headed article acknowledged the logistical difficulty of predicting international trends like the explosion of international Bourbon sales. These rose 14 per cent in 2011 and 15 per cent in 2012, according to Distilled Spirits Council of the US. It reminded that prediction is paramount when your product takes six-plus years to produce. It also answered the question over why not a price hike and put conspiracy theorist-caliber skeptics to rest by pointing out that Maker’s is but one cog in the Beam machine. A cog that helped bring the company $3.1 billion worth of liquor last year.
So perhaps Samuels Jr. committed a gaffe in his statement that loyal drinkers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Perhaps customers balked at the thought of being fleeced and suddenly getting less for the cost of a ubiquitous product. Panic set in. Ryan Maloney, the owner of Julio’s Liquors in Massachusetts said he was overwhelmed with calls inquiring whether he had any bottles of the 90 proof spirit.
But the fact remains: people talked, they shouted, they moaned, then they cheered and felt like a team in an Us against The Man situation. They continue to talk. They will look back on “that time when” for a while.
In our social-media-propelled society, people like to talk, to complain, to feel part of something and to feel validated. Maker’s Mark fulfilled every one of those pastimes.