Maker’s Mark’s Loyal Customers Saved Them from Themselves

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After backlash from customers, the producers of Maker’s Mark are reversing its decision to cut the amount of alcohol in its famous bourbon recipe.

Last weekend, Maker’s announced it was watering down their renowned bourbon recipe to account for rising demand. Maker’s, like other high-end whiskeys, is aged in charred, white-oak barrels for six years or longer. Because the aging process is so time consuming, Maker’s cannot simply “ramp up production” in order to meet the increasing demand. In order to address the supply issue, executives announced that they were going to add water to the bourbon prior to the bottling phase, effectively lowering the Alcohol by Volume from 90 proof to 84 proof.

The bourbon market has exploded over the past few years, and in the US bourbon now accounts for 35% of all spirit sales. Maker’s has struggled to keep up with demand and has been forced to cancel shipments to some overseas markets. The increased demand led the bourbon manufacturer to seek out alternatives to how they would increase supply. Maker’s focused on trying to develop options to stretch the amount of available product, which led to the decision to add more water.

As you may imagine, customer outrage was extreme, including calls for a boycott. Maker’s Mark has built their brand on superior quality at a premium price, so to discover that the company was diluting its famous product came as a bit of a shock to loyal customers. Loyal customers went to Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms to voice their anger towards the decision.

After a week of harsh criticism, loyal customers said that they would prefer a shortage of Maker’s Mark over a change in the recipe. The company announced via Twitter that they were taking the advice of their customers, and leaving the bourbon recipe the same. They have now built an entire campaign around the hashtag “youspokewelistened”.

In business, occasional issues are going to happen— that’s why generating loyal customers is so important. While Maker’s has weathered the initial storm, they will face additional issues down the road with limited distribution and product availability. Brands that have developed a large base of loyal customers are more likely to weather these occasional issues.

In difficult times the key is to re-establish the personal connection that exists between the customer and the brand. Loyal customers want to feel like they are part of the brand and are more valued than the average customer. They want to feel like their complaints are being are being heard and addressed. When they feel like they are being ignored, they will defect to competitive brands. Maker’s Mark executed this strategy perfectly, hence the hashtag “youspokewelistened”.

But loyalty is not created overnight, and should become an organizational priority long before something bad happens. In Maker’s case, they were actually a victim of their own success. Their product became so popular that they couldn’t keep up with the demand. Luckily, they have a long history of producing a superior product and have built a significant following of loyal customers. But loyalty is more than just a set of transactional behaviors; it’s the attitudes of loyal customers that set them apart from occasional customers. They have frequent, varied, and recent interactions with their favorite brands in addition to frequent purchases. In difficult times, loyalty becomes a company’s most important weapon to fight negative publicity. Strong organizations and strong brands understand the need to create an emotional connection with their customers rather than a purely transactional relationship.

Strong brands are able to weather the storm when unexpected issues present themselves. But building customer loyalty is a long-term strategy not a short term promotion. The importance of a systematic and disciplined approach to strengthening customer relationships is critical. Too often marketers think loyalty can be won through a sweepstakes or promotion, but true loyalty requires a much more strategic approach. In Maker’s case it was their loyal customers that saved them from themselves.

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