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Samuels and son Rob, Maker’s Mark chief operating officer, quickly debunked any devious marketing ploy.
"While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand — and you told us in large numbers to change our decision," they wrote in a letter to the public. "You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down."
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The criticisms and response, mostly distributed through social media and email, followed the company’s announcement that demand for its bourbon was exceeding its supply. Instead of raising prices, a standard strategy to balance supply and demand, Maker’s Mark decided to "stretch" its bourbon supply by 6 percent. It did that by reducing the alcohol content from 45 percent by volume to 42 percent.
Discerning imbibers who tried the 84-proof product disputed Maker’s Mark contention that the taste wasn’t affected.
Pasquale Trozzolo, CEO at Trozzolo Communications Group in Kansas City, Mo., who also teaches a college-level course on branding, said he doubted that Maker’s Mark strategized to put its bourbon in the news this way.
"But it certainly ignited brand loyalty," Trozzolo said. "People said, ‘We love you. Don’t do that.’ And even with the outrage, the move didn’t endanger anybody. And the company handled it well."
Kenny Cohrs, the bar manager at Cafe Trio in Kansas City, said the Maker’s Mark liquid dilution surprised a lot of bourbon drinkers and fellow bar managers.
"Lots of folks were wondering why they would change. It was a good brand," Cohrs said. "What’s fantastic now is that a company that big would so quickly take into consideration what its customers were saying."
In a wide-ranging report on consumer trends, headlined "This Time It’s Personal," the accounting firm Ernst & Young emphasized the power that the Internet has put in customer hands:
"Authority has moved from the detached to the personal; from national or international media channels to sectional or community blogs; from the objective expert to the known friend, relative or trusted blogger."
In other words, today’s manufacturers or marketers can’t necessarily tell consumers what their brand is.
"Buttons can be pressed to generate consumer response," Trozzolo said. "But the power rests with the consumer to define the brand."
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