Nine days ago, Maker’s Mark bourbon-drinking customers received an email that caused concern. Citing an overwhelming demand, the distillery decided to reduce the alcohol content in its bourbon by 3 percent.
While not a huge percentage, the announcement was met by outrage from the brand’s faithful fans, many of whom took to social media to express their outrage.
Two days ago, Maker’s Mark announced it was reversing its decision. Both announcements resulted in huge media coverage, causing speculation that the original announcement and reversal was like a Hollywood publicity stunt.
While it is impossible to know whether the company was trying to generate publicity, the entire move appears to be a massive misstep. The distiller increased its visibility and name recognition. The Today show on Monday carried on a lively conversation about Maker's Mark as they passed around a bottle and poured it into glasses.
But publicity only goes so far. What about trust? One of the Today show guest hosts wondered aloud whether reducing the alcohol content was a not-so-subtle way of causing consumers to drink more. That probably wasn't on the Maker's Mark key message list.
Maker’s Mark could have avoided this entire mess by engaging its customers and testing the concept before making the announcement. And the announcement should have come with a clear, credible explanation such as, perhaps, doing its bit for drinking responsibly.
Of course, telling the truth would have been helpful. Forbes carried a piece saying the real problem for family-run Maker's Mark is that demand outstrips supply. By diluting its brew, it could squeeze out more bottles to sell. At least the company knew enough not to hoist that as a key message.
Meanwhile, it could have turned its problem into an opportunity by coming out with a new bourbon with less alcohol, while preserving its main brand at 90 proof. It could have offered a new product for "socially responsible drinkers," not offended its loyal customers and sold more booze.
Maker’s Mark may try to put the incident into its rear view mirror after reversing its initial decision. However, the damage to the company’s reputation may prove more difficult to escape, especially in business school case studies.