Followup: Maker’s Mark Completes the New Coke Maneuver

Maker's Mark Supplies
It took about a week.

Maker’s Mark has now completed the legendary and incredibly difficult New Coke Maneuver.

After backlash from customers, the producer of Maker’s Mark bourbon is reversing a decision to cut the amount of alcohol in bottles of its famous whiskey.

Rob Samuels, Maker’s Mark’s chief operating officer, said Sunday that it is restoring the alcohol volume of its product to its historic level of 45 percent, or 90 proof. Last week, it said it was lowering the amount to 42 percent, or 84 proof, because of a supply shortage.

“We’ve been tremendously humbled over the last week or so,” Samuels, grandson of the brand’s founder, said of customers’ reactions.
—NBC News (H/T: @TeeKeeMon)

I didn’t quite have the guts to predict this when I posted about it last week. You can see from the post title that I cut out a lot of my speculation, in part because it would have been so risky, and in part because I wanted to focus on the bind Maker’s was in economically and marketing-wise.

But I kinda think they pulled it off. Most giant corporate entities who try similar maneuvers, planned or not, (I’m looking at you Netflix and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Now Is Once Again Known as Prince™) fail like Hitler’s push on Stalingrad. But I’m betting Maker’s has pulled it off. And they pulled it off because of the fact that they were honest about why they made the move in the first place.

They had to do something, as I outlined before.

If they had just jacked up the price, with a few dry stories about supply constraints in business publications, customers would have just noticed the price increase and said, “Aw, sheeoot! Maker’s is so damned expensive alluva sudden. They’re a awfully proud of their product these days. I’ll be proud of my Jim Beam for less.”

If they had constrained supply, bars and restaurants would have stopped making it a staple brand. And cutomers not finding it on shelves would have said, “Hmmm. No Maker’s these days. I’ve always wanted to see what the fuss was with this Four Roses….”

If they’d just tried to quietly lower the proof with the bullcrud explanation that customers wanted less booze in their booze, as Jack Daniels (barely) got away with in an era before Twitter and FaceBook lynch mobs roamed the Earth, in this age, where Twitter and FaceBook lynch mobs roam the Earth, they would have been crucified with comments like this:

Alert drunkard Chris Sharp brought this unfathomable blasphemy to my attention and I feel it my sworn duty to bring it to yours.

“I was outraged,” says Sharp, a once avid Jack drinker. “They continue to claim in their ads that they stick to tradition. Tradition, my ass. If they think that people will take this sitting down they are sadly mistaken.”
Modern Drunkard Magazine, on the Jack Daniels watering

But Maker’s pushed their decision big. They went out of their way to tell all their biggest customers what they were doing, and more importantly, why. And they were explicit with the press about the problem as the inevitable wave hit. And customers told them, in no uncertain terms, and in a way that everyone knew what everyone else was telling them, that, “Thank you, but we’d really prefer that you keep our whiskey the same, and try one of those other options.” (Please note the peculiar consumer deceit that it is “our” bourbon.) I disagree with the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, but Maker’s didn’t hunker down and stonewall through it, but made sure every reputable story about the situation made clear the problem was real.

Now Maker’s can go back to the old formula. The customers have essentially all told them “raise the price instead,” and they know they all told Maker’s that. If they see an intermittent shortage, they will know why. Maker’s has the consumer buy-in to take the long-term path out of a supply crunch.

Maker's Mark Ultimate Collector's Item Bottle
Source: Bourbon Blog.
Follow the link for more on initial reaction to the 84 proof decision.

And now they have cases and cases of the best collector’s item bourbon out there. Bottles that will be bought, but not drunk. Most bottles sold at 84 proof will be sold right alongside a bottle of 90 proof that is meant to be drunk.

Did they mean to do this all along? Just as I’m not a Coca-Cola Classic Truther, I doubt (despite my suspicions this would end this way) they intended for this to happen. But they were smart. And they did lay the groundwork to retreat and get away with it. I think that they will.

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

3 Comments

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  • Jim Walters,

    Well, I’d disagree vociferously that FaceBook mobs were anything like what they are now (their user base as barely 1 million in December 2004. It is 1.06 billion now), and Twitter was two years from going live. I was explicit in my first post about how serious a bind Maker’s was in. The situation that forced this whole thing was a huge problem, and for as well as they have handled it, it still IS a huge problem.

    And I don’t think that Maker’s is smart enough to plan a New Coke Maneuver™ from the outset (neither did Coke). But they MAY have been smart enough to plan an exit strategy in the event Plan A blew up in their faces. I think they did everything they could to make that Plan A work, it is just a lesson for others in how to do that while still leaving Plan B a possibility. If you try to stonewall or disresepct your customer base, as so many do, you get the horns.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  • There’s more to the New Coke story than most people know. (My dad was the lead partner in the Coke account of the Big Accounting Firm auditing Coke at the time, and a high school pal of then-CEO, Roberto Goizueta.)

    Intrigue, I tell ya.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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