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Maker's Mark Diluted Bourbon Catastrophe: Social Media for PR

Inbound Marketing

Emily Frye, Senior Account Manager, Mojo Media Labs

When the Maker's Mark diluted bourbon debacle came up earlier this month, the distiller announced they would be diluting the alcoholic content of their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from 90 to 84 proof, loyal fans took to social media to voice their outrage. Beam, Inc., owner of the Maker’s line cited growing demands as its reason for diluting supplies. The popularity of Maker’s bourbon has increased exponentially in the last decade, and with the next huge batch sleeping soundly in casks for another six years, Beam, Inc. took action by way of announcing they would be diluting existing supplies to meet growing customer demands.

Southern frat boys everywhere were “Totally pissed, bro.”

Fans of Maker’s Mark voiced their largely negative response to the announcement on Facebook and Twitter. The comments ranged from the more tame responses on Facebook, “…watering down a classic” to unsurprisingly more colorful outrage on Twitter. Many of the tweets and mentions were too racy for this blog. Thousands of fans responded, prompting the brand’s immediate reaction and making yet another good case for having a strong social media PR strategy.

The brand took to its website live feed on February 11th as a first step. Chairman Emeritus, Bill Samuels, Jr. thanked fans for their initial responses, and explained why he was “…on board with the decision to lower the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level.” He further revealed that forecasting difficulties combined with the fact that Maker’s has never purchased bourbon from other companies to meet demands were the reasons for the proof decrease. Samuels also mentioned that Maker’s would never use a price increase to mitigate increasing demands, because it would put the bourbon out of reach for much of its fan base. A good first step.

The backlash however, continued in the socialsphere because, let’s face it, people like to get their drink on and when you lessen the power of a man’s bourbon, you diminish his manhood. Okay. Maybe not, but you definitely run the risk of causing damage to the customer’s perceived value of your brand if you reduce alcohol content, change the size of the bottle or the design of the packaging. Change is hard and can be damaging. After Samuels’ response, the fans continued to complain.

It was time to implement the superpower that is created when a corporation combines social media and public relations effectively.

Rob Samuels, Chief Operating Officer, along with his father Bill Samuels, Jr. released a statement February 17th via their social channels, addressing the outcry up front and more importantly, apologizing to fans. This is the first rule of social media PR: address the problem head on. The more you hide, the more your brand suffers. They acted fast, had key executives address the issue, and they weren’t afraid to personalize it.

Maker’s Mark handled the backlash perfectly, preventing further outcry. They let their fans know that their voices were heard and that their opinions matter to the brand. They weren’t going to change a thing:

“You spoke. We listened. Here’s proof.” Brilliant.

Corporations must embrace social media for public relations crisis management.

Here are some tips for doing it the right way.

Don’t be afraid to say, “We’re sorry.”

  1. Make sure you have an executive’s endorsement.
  2. Make it personal, because it’s personal to your brand’s best customers and advocates.
  3. Act fast. In the socialsphere, an outcry can erupt in less than an hour.
  4. Join the conversation. Respond to specific grievances and engage with your audience.
  5. Keep your press release headlines short, Retweetable.
  6. Blog, blog, and blog some more. Use your blog as a newswire, explaining how you’re fixing the issue.

In this bourbon drinking, digital marketer’s opinion, Maker’s Mark handled the extremely unfavorable fan response beautifully, avoiding a PR catastrophe, simply by following these basic rules of social media PR.

I take my Maker’s Mark in the form of a Manhattan, in case you were curious.


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