Don’t Let MBAs Mess With Bourbon

I’m a fan of Maker’s Mark bourbon and usually drink the stuff mixed with Diet Coke, so I wasn’t terribly upset when I heard they were lowering the alcohol volume to 84 proof from 90. I’d never notice the difference. Given the variability of the Diet Coke pour and the quantity of ice, the proportion of bourbon in any glass I have probably varies by 20% anyway.

I also thought this whole thing was just a PR move, and a poor one at that, because it’s so transparent. There’s no way a small distillery, using a family secret recipe, would allow the product quality to be damaged. You’d have to be a dim bulb to mess with the unique selling proposition. Further, if you can water down the product and grow (not maintain) sales volume, then you reveal to your customers that the thing they purchased wasn’t what it purported to be. Why would a small company, which should know better, do this?

After reading an article today, I learned that Maker’s Mark isn’t actually a small distillery. The brand is owned by Beam Inc., a $2.5 billion sales distillery company that features its stock price on the website. Uh oh.

Turns out, Beam probably was really considering watering down the product. And if nobody noticed, the death spiral starts. Cheaper ingredients, more adulterants added, maybe even fake wax to replace the iconic bottle seal. The customers would complain and then move to something else. And Beam Inc. would simply transfer the marketing budget to another brand, and not even notice.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to continue making a quality product that customers like and, when demand gets ahead of supply, let the market iron out the problem with a temporary increase to the price? But then what would the bean counters have to do?

Don’t let your MBAs mess with bourbon.

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