PR Lessons from the Brouhaha About Maker’s Mark

Call it public relations, with a twist.

Following a backlash from consumers, the producer of Maker’s Mark bourbon has reversed its decision to reduce the amount of alcohol in bottles of its whiskey.

The episode provides a cautionary tale for communications execs grappling with the growing impact of social media.

Earlier this month Maker’s Mark said that demand for its bourbon had started to exceed its ability to make it, and as a result had decided to reduce the alcohol content to 42% from 45%.

Maker’s Mark, which is owned by spirits company Beam Inc., wanted to increase the supply of its whiskey. However, the move began to put the brand on the rocks, with consumers venting their dissatisfaction on social channels.

The whiskey maker then issued a swift apology, which was posted to the company’s Facebook page and website.

“You spoke. We listened,” said the apology, which was signed by Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels and Bill Samuels, Jr., chairman emeritus. “We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand–and you told us in large numbers to change our decision,” said the apology. “And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

It added: “The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.”

Considering the brouhaha regarding the Maker’s Mark episode, perhaps companies and their public relations executives will now start to ask their most loyal consumers, via social channels, for feedback on a potential product change before finalizing the decision.

In a social-media world, corporate decisions by fiat are losing their kick.

Follow Mathew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1