Friday, October 7, 2011

How Maker’s Mark Was Made.

Most histories of Maker’s Mark Bourbon mention an early ad campaign, typified by the one above. “It tastes expensive…and is,” was always the headline.

Bragging about how expensive your product is can be a risky tactic, but Maker’s made it work. To understand how, it helps to understand the context.

The first barrel of Maker’s was laid down in 1954. The first bottle was sold in 1959. They were a true independent then, owned and operated by the Samuels family. They were tiny, starting from scratch. They grew slowly but steadily, almost entirely in Kentucky.

Bill Samuels Junior, whose father started the company, has said it is a good thing they were family-owned and independent then because it didn’t make much sense as a business and any real business would have shut them down.

It took, after all, 25 years.

Price was always an issue with retailers, especially in rural Kentucky, who couldn’t imagine why someone would buy an unknown bourbon for $7 a bottle when there were plenty of good bourbons for $6 and less. In the cities, where people routinely paid $7 or more for a bottle of good whiskey, it was scotch they were buying, not bourbon.

Bourbon was the working man’s drink. No one could imagine a bourbon competing directly with scotch or Cognac.

Maker’s was clearly swimming against the current. Because they were so small, they didn’t have much of an advertising budget. But they did have a story, a good one, one that they believed in. They also had a good advertising agency, Louisville’s Doe-Anderson.

Ads like the one above weren’t full-page or color. They were one-quarter page or less, in black and white. The message had to be clear and pertinent. It had to ‘move the needle.’

“It tastes expensive…and is,” launched in 1966, was successful because it under-promised and over-delivered, in an almost back-handed way. The ads said Maker's was expensive, but it wasn't. It was a little pricier than other bourbons but less than most good scotch or other things people might be drinking. The first time you looked at it in a store you were prepared by the advertising for it to be more expensive than it was. Perfect!

With price resistance thus overcome, they could get to sampling, and Maker’s sampled well because it had a different flavor. It genuinely was not a typical bourbon. It had a milder, sweeter flavor, even compared to scotch. It made an excellent first impression, regardless of the taster’s previous drinking experience.

After 1969, whiskey sales collapsed and the rest of the industry was in a race to the bottom. Maker’s stood apart even more. No one in the business believed you could sell bourbon with a quality claim. That was true when bourbon sales were growing and became carved in stone when sales nose-dived. No one took Maker's Mark seriously. It was still a tiny, Kentucky-owned brand.

Ultimately, Maker’s Mark was 'made' by a 1980 article in the Wall Street Journal, which described how it had been discovered by traveling businessmen, who began a word-of-mouth campaign, which led to surging sales and a chronic shortage that persists to the present.

The WSJ article told how Maker’s was making all the right moves, so it’s likely they would have succeeded anyway, but the article sure helped. It can also be said to mark the beginning of the present bourbon revival. Once it was okay to think of bourbon as a quality product, anything was possible.

The independence that had been such a large part of Maker's story was gone in less than a year. People often mistakenly believe small privately-owned companies sell out because they've hit a bad financial patch. Usually it's the opposite. They sell out because they can't afford to finance the growth their success has made possible without help. In 1981, Maker’s Mark was acquired by Canada’s Hiram Walker and Sons.

Now part of the new Beam Inc., Maker’s Mark has become the first super premium bourbon to break the one-million-case sales barrier. Its success has been built on a perfect convergence of smarts and luck. Bill Samuels Jr., since 2010 the company’s hardest-working retiree, has often said that his primary guiding principle has been, “don’t screw it up.”

So far, so good.

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