In an age of ever more complicated marketing campaigns, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish an obvious corporate misstep from an exquisitely clever publicity stunt. When the popular bourbon Maker’s Mark announced recently it would reduce its alcohol content from 90 proof to 84, the explanation for the move seemed both too cute and too self-serving; Maker’s had just become too darn popular, executives insisted, and the brand needed a way to stretch its supplies. The resulting consumer backlash was entirely predictable; for many whiskey buffs, watering down the booze is transparently a breach of trust. The company soon backtracked. Inevitably, skeptics then concluded that corporate owner Beam Inc. was eager to provoke a New Coke-style consumer revolt in the social-media era — without actually having to produce much New Coke.
In fact, Maker’s Mark may really have hoped that consumers would accept a diluted product. The usual way of rationing a scarce product — simply charging more for it — is, by some accounts, at odds with corporate owner Beam Inc.’s strategy of turning Maker’s Mark into a ubiquitous brand around the world. Still, there’s no way to know for sure, and bourbon buffs are bound to go on speculating — probably over old fashioneds and mint juleps that, if nothing else, are just as potent as ever.