February 19, 2013
Anticipating a specific public relations crisis isn’t always possible. Unanticipated crises pop up on social media so often (and spread so fast) that companies can find themselves in deep trouble even when they did the right thing.
On the other hand, some crises are so predictable that it’s hard to believe no one in the company saw it coming.
Maker’s Mark, a distiller of fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey, recently created just such a crisis when it announced it was changing its recipe. An experienced PR counselor should have predicted what happened next.
Loyal Maker’s Mark customers revolted.
Their response to the recipe-change announcement mirrored that of Coca-Cola customers following the April 1985 introduction of “New Coke.” To Coke’s credit, it believed its new recipe was better than the old one. Maker’s Mark’s reason for changing its recipe was less lofty than Coke’s. Unable to meet a growing global demand for its product, the company decided to add more water to its barrels to stretch the supply. Company owners said the extra water wouldn’t affect the taste, but would lower the alcohol content of its bourbon from 45 percent to 42 percent. Maker’s Mark customers loudly disagreed. They took to Facebook and Twitter to complain to anyone who would listen.
Maker’s Mark’s owners listened. The founder’s son and grandson responded to the PR crisis much more quickly than Coke had, announcing they had changed their minds just a few days later, leaving only their brand watered-down.
Ironically, public relations lead to the demand for Maker’s Mark that eventually inspired the plan to water down its whiskey. Prior to 1980, the company was little-known outside Kentucky. At the time, it had a surplus inventory and barrels of bourbon were continuing to pile up as production outstripped consumption. Then a reporter from The Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page story about the company and overnight, Maker’s Mark became a national brand.
The company that was once saved by PR needs crisis PR to save it again. It isn’t clear whether Maker’s Mark leadership failed to consult with – or ignored the advice of – a trusted PR adviser before the latest crisis. What is clear is that by failing to seek out and follow the guidance that could have averted this crisis before it began, the company may have eroded the trust its loyal consumers placed in its brand.
They should have seen that coming a Kentucky mile away.
By Mark Pettus
Director of Digital Engagement at Axia Public Relations
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