Typically, a crisis is caused by an outside force – like a government recall, plant-destroying fire or production-halting natural disaster.
But, every once in a while, brands create their own crises.
Consider the odd case of Makers Mark. In a week’s time, the company announced it would water down its premium bourbon to stretch supplies, got spanked by angry consumers who hated the idea (demonstrating what one executive called “overwhelming response and passion”) and reversed its decision.
Citing the possibility of looming shortages, executives said they needed to dilute their bourbon to meet growing demand. By reducing the alcohol in each bottle from 90 proof (45 percent alcohol) to 84 proof (42 percent), Makers Mark could increase production by more than six percent without distilling a single extra barrel of bourbon. They cited research that supposedly proved consumers wouldn’t even notice their bourbon was watered down.
In a world where consumers can find at least 75 other brands of bourbon, it’s hard to understand what would motivate Makers Mark to very publicly announce that it planned to cheapen its product.
To be clear, companies reformulate all the time and consumers typically forgive the changes. Makers Mark could have increased production without offending customers by simply being honest about its motives – or not explaining those motives at all.
Makers Mark customers really balked because they felt they were being scammed. They were outraged when executives tried to convince them that diluting Makers Mark was really a public service. Their bourbon would be watered down to meet growing demand. However, despite all the voiced concern about potential product shortages, brand executives never suggested they would share customers’ pain by cutting the price of their reduced-proof bourbon.
When consumers voiced their dissatisfaction, CEO Bill Samuels Jr. issued a statement that said, in part, “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.”
The lesson for consumer brands: Put your customers first to protect your reputation.