How Maker’s Mark Avoided a Social Media Firestorm By Listening to Their Customers

by Mack Collier

Maker's MarkAlthough I am not a drinker and haven’t consumed a drop of bourbon in my life, I am a big fan of how Maker’s Mark strives to have a close relationship with its customers.  In fact I did an extensive case study on the company’s excellent brand ambassador program for Think Like a Rock Star.

Recently the brand got into some hot water with its customers when it announced that it was diluting its product from 45% alcohol by volume, to 42%.  Obviously, this is not a decision that customers of a brand that makes whisky would be excited about, and Maker’s Mark’s customers quickly took to social media and email to voice their displeasure over the move.

And not surprisingly, Maker’s Mark quickly reversed course, and announced on its Facebook page that their customers were right:

While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

Notice how Maker’s Mark not only apologized to their customers, but acknowledged that ‘this is your brand’.  If you were a customer that was upset about Maker’s Mark’s decision, how can you stay mad at the brand after reading this?

There’s two very important business lessons here:

1 – Remember that Maker’s Mark has a robust brand ambassador program in place.  It’s one of the largest in the world, and numbers over a hundred thousand.  This gives Maker’s Mark a direct feedback channel to its most passionate customers.  Sure, it’s one thing when ‘drive-by’ customers are slamming you on Facebook, but it’s quite another when people that have been members of your ambassador program for a decade or more, suddenly tell you that your latest move will cause them to stop giving you their business.  THAT’S when you know it’s serious.  Maker’s Mark got feedback on this move almost immediately from its most passionate supporters, and that helped the brand make an informed decision.

2 – Whether or not a social media firestorm happens is always dictated by how the brand responds to its customers.  It’s never the company’s initial action that creates the firestorm, that’s just the spark, then you have upset customers voicing their concern to the brand.  THEN it depends on how the brand responds.  If Maker’s Mark had ignored their customers, or worse yet, told them they were wrong, then the flames would have been fanned, and the anger would have gotten worse.  But Maker’s Mark didn’t do that, they listened to their customers and admitted that their customers were right.  The potential firestorm was diffused because the brand listened to its customers.

Remember, it’s never the company’s initial action that determines if there will be a social media firestorm, it’s how the brand responds to its customers.  Maker’s Mark just gave us a textbook example of how to properly respond to angry customers.  HT to Jackie for this story.

Randi Busse February 18, 2013 at 5:37 pm

It’s great that Maker’s Mark heard their brand advocates. Wonder what would have happened if they asked them BEFORE they made the decision to reduce the alcohol content?
Will they get better press because they show that their customer’s opinions matter?

Mack Collier February 18, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Randi that’s a good question! Or if they are about to make a similar decision in the future, will they stop, remember this episode and think ‘let’s first ask our ambassadors what they think’?

Gavin Heaton February 19, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I was thinking the same … taking “listening” a step further will become the new competitive advantage. Bringing advocates into the product development cycle – at least for early stage validation – can help avoid this sort of outcry!

Mack Collier February 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Randi and Gavin, here’s another thought:

Let’s say Maker’s Mark makes a similar move say 3 months from now, where they alter the product in some form, and there’s an immediate pushback from their customers. And let’s assume the brand again does not ask its ambassadors beforehand about the move (assuming they didn’t here).

At what point could there be backlash from the ambassadors if the brand keeps making moves like this without consulting their ambassadors first? I think Maker’s Mark does far more than most brands about embracing their most passionate fans, but if you want to say to your customers ‘this is your brand’, then you have to MEAN that.

Randi Busse February 20, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Agree Mack. And if it truly is the customer’s brand, that means being proactive not reactive!

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