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Over A Barrel

You may have heard Maker’s Mark announced they would be lowering the proof of their whiskey from 90 to 84 in response to supply constraints. You see, there’s been more demand for whiskey these days, and since it takes years to age, Maker’s Mark can’t simply produce more whiskey right away to keep up with demand. Hence, they decided to “create” more whiskey by watering it down, rather than subjecting customers to shortages. Maker’s Mark insisted there would be no perceptible difference in taste.

If this is news to you, don’t worry. After outcry from their customers, Maker’s Mark reversed their decision.

You’re probably wondering what got into their heads. How could they even THINK of changing their core product??

This notion of watering down may be more of an industry practice than we realize. Jack Daniels watered down their whiskey in the late 1980s from 90 to 86. In 2003, Jack Daniels AGAIN lowered the proof from 86 to 80. They started the product change in select states and completed the rollout in early 2004, without so much as a whimper from customers. WHY? Because they made no announcements. They did not tell consumers they were going to change their core product. And no one noticed for about 6 months until Modern Drunkard magazine picked up on the story. By then, it was pretty difficult for customers to come up with the outrage needed to reverse the decision. “Ooooh! I’m really mad that you changed the proof of my whiskey…erhhh…even though I couldn’t tell the difference!”

So, what’s the lesson here? Both companies have very strong brands and many fans. Since Jack Daniels was more successful in the product change, does that mean we should keep that type of information from our customers? Or should we have an open dialogue like Maker’s Mark? Marketers are always advocating conversation, right? A quandary…

In this case Maker’s mistake was in gauging the client. Maker’s Mark overestimated the customer’s understanding of the product. Bourbon is often consumed with water. When the alcohol is diluted we are much more capable of detecting its subtle flavors. That means it actually tastes better with a little water. Bourbon actually gets most of its flavor from how long it’s aged in barrels. It would be much more detrimental to the taste if Maker’s pulled their casks at 5 years instead of 6.

I’m not implying Maker’s consumers aren’t sophisticated—there are some serious bourbon fans that love Maker’s Mark. However, they may not love bourbon enough to know everything about the bourbon-making process. Maker’s counted on their consumer understanding that a lower proof doesn’t mean lower taste.

The bottom line: No one knows your product like you know it. When it comes to your product or service, you are the expert. When you have to make major decisions about transparency in communication, it is critical to understand the potential issues/challenges from your customers perspective. You may want advice from a branding & marketing expert who can predict consumer reaction through research, surveys, or focus groups. A little up front intelligence may save you a lot of damage control in the long run.

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