Caution: What will happen to my Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskeys?
The acquisition of Beam Inc. by Suntory Holdings of Japan, has created a storm of concern about whether the heartland American brands, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark will change. With enormous heritage, both brands have very loyal franchises and passionate consumers.
And despite the fact that they have been around for a long time – Jim Beam was founded in 1795 and Maker’s Mark in 1958 – these brands continue to enjoy organic growth, and are benefitting, possibly even contributing to, a resurgence in the popularity of bourbons and whiskeys globally.
Suntory, who needs a stronger foothold in North America, has made a very smart acquisition. (Do you remember Bill Murray in Lost in Translation doing Suntory whisky commercials?). Now the challenge is for them to deeply understand the essence of the brands they have acquired, and not change them. The announcements have all indicated that it will be “business as usual”, which I believe is the current intention. But over the longer haul, it will be up to Suntory to embrace the core authenticity of these brands. But what, exactly, does this mean?
- Don’t mess with the product in any way. The Kentucky makers have perfected the art of bourbon. They should never, ever, reformulate. If there is a new recipe, make it a new brand, but don’t compromise what you already have. The recent attempt to reduce the alcohol content of Maker’s Mark, and the brand loyalist revolt, was a classic piece of brand learning.
- Don’t change the package or the label. While there is always some aggressive product manager wanting to justify change, this should be addressed very carefully, if at all. Consumers are funny, but once they have adopted a brand into their lives, they don’t want or expect change. They gravitate to what they know. So these brands should tiptoe very carefully. Alcohol is a heritage category, unlike potato chips, and carries with it an earned gravitas. Don’t lose it, strengthen it.
- Continue to leverage the brand heritage in advertising and promotional activity. Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark have earned a great reputation over time. This heartland, quality image must be maintained. No one else can claim this “positioning” space, so Beam would be wise to nurture and protect it.
On a personal note, a close friend has been teaching me about bourbons. The more I learn, the more I respect the product and how it is made. The Beam brands have what others aspire to have, and they must milk that for all it’s worth to continue to grow and secure leadership. Suntory, for all it’s scale, should study what is working and why, and let the brands thrive.