Whiskey maker misses Mark

Consumer backlash forces Maker's Mark into embarrassing backdown on reduced alcohol content.

Talk about diluting the brand. Thousands of bourbon drinkers told Maker's Mark that it bottled a big mistake when it reduced the alcohol content - to 84 proof from 90 proof - in its signature whiskey.

Within a week, the spirited outpouring elicited a promise to return the alcohol content to 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume.

Consumers spoke. The company listened.

Maker's Mark is just the most recent company to misjudge its customers or its product and backpedal to protect its brand.

It wasn't easy. On Sunday, Bill Samuels Jr, the chairman emeritus of Maker's Mark, called the interlude the "worst four or five days in my life".

At least his agony was short-lived. When companies mess with their brands, consumer rebellion sometimes lasts far longer. And one thing's for sure in the Internet age: Social media let reaction pop up faster, spread further and potentially last longer.

Australia's iconic beer brand, VB, was a prime case. After reducing its alcohol content from 4.9 to 4.6 per cent in 2009, sales slumped resulting in an embarrassing backflip last year that delivered an immediate upswing.

US-based video streaming and DVD rental service Netflix stumbled for months - in the court of public opinion and on Wall Street - when subscribers reacted angrily in 2011 to new pricing and distribution plans. The company lost 800,000 customers and $US9 billion in market value in less than four months after it instituted a 60 per cent price increase.

"I messed up," Reed Hastings, Netflix's chief executive, wrote to customers. "I owe you an explanation."

The explanation, which included splitting the company into two parts, one for mailed DVDs, the other for online streaming, didn't sit well with customers. The company was reunited, but many customers remained upset.

One result: DVD rentals jumped at the kiosks run by Netflix rival, Redbox.

Ikea rushed to protect its brand last October when fans worldwide learned that women had been airbrushed out of pictures in the Swedish furniture company's Saudi Arabia catalog. The backlash caused Ikea to apologise.

"We should have reacted to the exclusion of women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalog, since it does not align with the Ikea Group values," was the company's quick response.

Another company that took customers where they didn't want the brand to go was Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle manufacturer tried to sell perfume, aftershave and wine coolers in the 1990s. Lacklustre sales and plenty of criticism made it clear that passionate Hog lovers didn't want their brand prettied up, and the products faded.

In what perhaps was the archetypal modern branding misstep, consumers skewered Coca-Cola in 1985 after it introduced a new recipe. Within three months, the company revived the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic. "New Coke" eventually disappeared in the United States, except as a worst-case marketing study.

Cynics suggest that such moves could be clever marketing ploys to keep product names in the news and foremost in customers' minds.

Tom Fischer, who writes BourbonBlog.com, wondered, "Could (Maker's Mark) have just tested all of us to see what we would do? I don't think they did that, but it's possible."

Samuels and his 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."

The Kansas City Star via MCT