Maker’s Mark hopes it has managed to avoid a New Coke-style disaster by reversing its widely-scorned decision (which was revealed in a Bloomberg Businessweek article) to dilute its iconic bourbon with water. Just days after his initial decision to cut the proof of Maker’s Mark from 90 to 84, CEO Bill Samuels Jr. realized the error of his ways, turned tail and just hoped that the brand hadn’t sustained any permanent damage.
On Sunday, Feb. 17th, the company announced on Facebook that it had surrendered to the collective will of thousands of bourbon drinkers expressed over the last several days after Maker’s Mark tried to extend tightening supplies of its flagship spirit by adding extra water that, it said, didn’t affect the taste. Fans, however, rose up on social media and argued that the move diluted the brand, too.
“They’ve told us that they would rather deal with the occasional supply shortage than have us change their whiskey,” Samuels Jr., son of the founder of Maker’s Mark, told USA Today.
Effective Monday, supported with a new cover image on its Facebook page (with the tagline “You spoke. We listened. Here’s proof”), every bottle coming out of the Loretto, Ky.-based brand owned by Beam Inc. is reverting to its historic 45-percent-alcohol content.[more]
The original problem was that Americans have gone on something of a hard-liquor jag lately, especially for premium brands like Maker’s Mark. Combined Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales from producers or suppliers to wholesalers rose by more than 5 percent to nearly 17 million cases last yaer, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, while revenues shot up by more than 7 percent to $2.2 billion.
Samuels and colleagues said they had spent months working on a way to keep the bourbon’s taste the same while reducing alcohol content to stretch supplies, and he was convinced they had.
But after Maker’s Mark announced last weekend that it would be making the change, the twittersphere exploded and many fans were outraged and bartenders concerned. “I am afraid they are diluting their brand,” Alba Huerta, general manager of the nationally renowned Anvil cocktail bar in Houston, told TIME.
— Wild Turkey (@WildTurkey) February 16, 2013
We distill our bourbons at a lower proof than competitors, allowing us to add less water and preserve more flavor. twitter.com/WildTurkey/sta…
— Wild Turkey (@WildTurkey) February 11, 2013
Competitor brands had a field day, quick to prod Maker’s Mark. Wild Turkey took to Twitter, with a flip-them-the-bird hashtag and comments such as, “We distill our bourbons at a lower proof than competitors, allowing us to add less water and preserve more flavor.”
Pundits already are comparing Maker’s Mark’s mea culpa and reversal to the New Coke marketing disaster in 1985, when Coca-Cola rolled out a new, sweeter version of its namesake soda only to face intense criticism—and then reintroduce the old version as Coke Classic months later. New Coke soon disappeared.
The difference this time is the time-telescoping effects of digital technology and, especially, social media. Maker’s Mark found out so quickly about the opposition to its move via intense digital feedback that it might have been able to stave off the worst damage to its brand by just as quickly reversing field.
No doubt this won’t be the last we’ve heard of Dilutiongate. And it’ll probably be Maker’s Mark advertising that brings it up again. Maybe a TV ad or YouTube video about how the episode shows how much the brand clearly means to its customers, and how much Maker’s Mark loves to please them?