By Richard Thomas
Maker’s Mark’s decision to bow to popular pressure and abandon their plan to respond to supply problems by cutting their whiskey has stirred up as much buzz as the original announcement of a cut from 90 proof to 84 proof (45% to 42% abv). This chatter takes two separate forms. First are the consumers and the internet peanut gallery, many of whom wonder if the entire flap wasn’t a New Coke-style publicity stunt. The other form comes from a few pundits, who opine that Maker’s Mark has stuck their collective foot in their mouth and damaged their brand name.
“It Was All A Hoax!”
Claims that Maker’s Mark staged a marketing dog and pony show are so cynical as to fall into the realm of trutherism. All the evidence points the other way.
As whiskey journalist Chuck Cowdery has explained, Maker’s Mark was planning to expand their plant capacity by 50% in 2005, a plan that fell by the wayside after Maker’s was purchased by Jim Beam. Although Maker’s Mark is a no aging statement whiskey, what’s in the bottle tends to be between five and six years old. If Maker’s 2005 expansion plans had been carried out, the Loretto, Kentucky distillery would have been poised to either get ahead of or to catch up with the consistent growth in demand for their product.
As it is, Maker’s Mark didn’t expand, and now faces a very real supply crunch with few palatable alternatives. The most likely outcome of Maker’s reverse on cutting their whiskey is that they will raise their price, a move sure to cause as much grumbling as the proposed alcohol cut did. However, to fail to enact a price hike would likely cause noticeable shortages on bar and liquor store shelves, something I’m sure Maker’s Mark wants to avoid.
New Coke was introduced amid the Cola Wars; Maker’s Mark was trying to address a very real problem. When you consider that Maker’s Mark had to do something about their supply difficulties, the idea that they would announce a cut in their whiskey, actually bottle a consignment of the new 42% abv bourbon, and then abandon it less than a week later as a marketing ploy is perhaps too Machiavellian to credit.
Maker’s Mark Botched It
As for the assertion that Maker’s Mark has damaged their own brand name, well, the critics can’t have it both ways. Either the Samuels clan and their people are shrewd PR masterminds, or they are bumblers of the first order. They can’t be both.
Furthermore, the claim that Maker’s Mark damaged itself rests on the idea that they played with the loyalty of their customers, and have been burned for it. Given that Maker’s has backed away from a clearly unpopular move, I fail to see how the claim that they trampled on the sensibilities of their customers has any merit. As Rob and Bill Samuels wrote: “You spoke. We listened.” Demonstrably so, at that.
For an example of how a whiskey brand really can damage itself, look at what Cardhu did in 2003. The internationally popular scotch responded to its own supply problems by trying to turn itself from a single malt into a vatted malt. The outraged public rejected the move, and sales of Cardhu plummeted accordingly.
Jack Daniel’s did what Maker’s Mark tried to do not once, but twice, and got clean away with it! Cardhu, and not what Maker’s Mark did, is what brand suicide looks like. Maker’s clearly cares about what its customers think and about the value of its brand name, and they just proved it. If December’s misdirected allegations of racism didn’t hurt Maker’s, this flap won’t either.