Maker’s Mark, one of the best-known American bourbon whiskies, has gotten more than its share of media attention recently. First, the small-batch distillery announced that global supply shortages were forcing it to produce more of its sweet spirit. To do this, the company said it would reduce its alcohol content from 45% alcohol (90 proof) to 42% (84 proof). Since bourbon lovers tend to like their alcohol, customer response was swift and unhappy. Aficionados questioned the company’s commitment to producing quality whiskey, and many threatened to switch brands. Within days, the spirit maker reversed its decision and issued a deeply humble statement that said, in part: “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.”
It would appear that Maker’s Mark senior management learned a lesson from Coca-Cola’s infamous marketing debacle of the 1980s, when the soda maker abandoned its wildly popular flagship product in favor of “New Coke.” Three months later, facing full-scale revolts from both customers and bottlers, they were forced to return to their original formulation.
Or…was this all a grand publicity stunt? Bourbon, made only in the United States (Kentucky, specifically) has recently enjoyed growing popularity in Europe and Asia. Internet chat boards are rife with speculation that the quick backpedal suggests Maker’s Mark never intended to actually change their product. Instead, conspirators whisper, this “mistake” has successfully highlighted their name and commitment to a high-octane product in a time of rising global demand.
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show). Strategy or stunt – really, does it matter? Either way, people are talking about Maker’s Mark.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Never underestimate the affection for a brand icon. With its distinctive square bottle and red wax seal, Maker’s Mark has become one of America’s leading liquor brands. At a minimum, intensive market research should have been conducted before pursuing such a significant change. That said, management recognized the error and fell on its sword swiftly enough to limit serious damage to the brand. Cheers!