Maker's Mark spreads the word through grassroots efforts
It's a chilly afternoon in January in the middle of the gray, post-holiday doldrums. Bill Samuels Jr., the 69-year-old CEO of Maker's Mark bourbon whisky (one of the few American varieties to prefer the Scottish spelling), just threw his schedule out the window to concentrate on an email that popped up. A handful of customers got together and sent him a question about which whiskeys he liked besides his own. "Well, I just finished writing an epistle to answer that question - and I enjoyed every minute of it," he chuckles.
The customers were members of Maker's volunteer ambassador program - a social media-fueled group that has become the lifeblood of the company's marketing. Samuels, who also carries the title of "Ambassador-at-Large" and is the son of the company's founder, would probably say ambassadors are the lifeblood of the company itself, but others would save that honor for the company's premium bourbon, which is sold in square-ish bottles and sealed with red wax.
Maker's Mark is a 52-year-old brand seeped in tradition and its Kentucky heritage. It started its brand-ambassador program back in 2001, and it has come to rely heavily on digital media. The program's evolution starts with a simple caveat from Samuels: "It requires a company to be interesting and not in too big of a hurry."
Here's how it works:
To be an ambassador, all you have to do is register on the company Web site. In exchange, you get your name on a barrel with 29 other names, regular updates on the status of your barrel and a chance to buy two bottles from that barrel after it has aged 6-7 years. A welcome kit is mailed out with promo collateral and 20 business cards that match Samuels'. They include your name, your ambassador number, your barrel number and when you "joined" the company.
You also receive a monthly text email from Samuels and a quarterly snail mail packet with branded trinkets and promotional gifts designed for sharing. As in many other loyalty programs, you have access to a private section on the Web site with insider info about the company and its myriad events.
The swag, and online and offline promos, all have a heavy focus on design - so other ambassadors who see them will instantly recognize you as one of their own. The business cards have proven a favorite, turning up all over the world, even though they were considered just a goofy, off-the-wall idea when an agency creative staffer first suggested them.
About a year ago, the first batch of ambassador barrels were finally aged, and the ambassadors who "own" them were invited to come to the distillery in Loretto, Ky., where they could buy two bottles from their barrel, and dip them in the brand's signature red wax.
Over the years, thousands of people have signed up. The Maker's Mark ambassador page on Facebook has more than 8,800 members and the company attracts about 8,000 ambassadors, staff and friends to its annual Kentucky Derby bash. Ambassador registrations have grown about 20 percent a year, says Todd Spencer, CEO of Doe-Anderson, the company's marketing agency. The group skews young - about a third are professionals ages 24-30, he says.
In developing the ambassador program, Maker's Mark and Doe-Anderson have tried to apply the viral online mindset to real-world, useful promotions that go way beyond both the computer and bar. A good example is the 2009 holiday mail packet sent to ambassadors. It included branded gift bags, tissue paper, and ribbon and gift tags to get "viral" distribution via gift giving. Such inexpensive and brand-friendly gifts are sent out at random to surprise ambassadors and keep buzz going, says Samuels. In late 2008, the company mailed out stickers that said "Thanks for serving Maker's" and "Please serve Maker's" for ambassadors to stick on their bar bills. About 5 percent of the ambassadors called or emailed the company asking for more stickers.
Invitation-only events are another big component of the program. For instance, between last November and January, Samuels hosted happy hours for ambassadors in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., attracting a few hundred people at each gathering. Every April, ambassadors are also invited to the distillery's Kentucky Derby celebration, which draws several thousand members from 39 states. The vast majority comes from outside Kentucky, and they all pay their own way, says Spencer.
All the company events are supported by email messages sent to ambassadors and updates on the company Web site and Facebook. When ambassadors call or email back they reach a young staff member named Emily. Each week Emily fields about 100 phone calls and 150-250 emails.
In addition, spontaneous online communities have sprung up among the random people who have their names on a single barrel. (Ambassadors can see an online photo of the nameplate on their barrel with all 30 names.) In their role as brand ambassadors, many members also post photos and video on Flickr and YouTube, and host their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.
So how does the company promote its burgeoning ambassador program? It doesn't.
Maker's Mark says it refuses to advertise or market its ambassador program. Its print, outdoor and in-store ads don't mention it. There is no PR campaign. There is no hype about it on the company site, just a short phrase to click on. "We treat you as a friend. From the start, we don't talk to you unless you ask us to," says Samuels.
This self-selection process seems to have built an influential base, whose value isn't based on how much bourbon they buy, but how they identify with the company. A couple of anecdotes bring that point home.
Samuels recalls how about five years ago West Coast-based Costco decided not to sell the company's product in their stores anymore. "I wrote an email to our ambassadors to tell them about the change and ask what they thought. We have a number of ambassadors in California and they tend to be outspoken. Apparently they voiced their thoughts to Costco, because about a week later, Costco suddenly decided to reverse its policy and keep our products on the shelf."
Agency chief Spencer - who practically lives on airplanes - says he constantly runs into strangers at airports who introduce themselves as ambassadors when they see a Maker's Mark logo on his computer or clothes. He recently was sitting between a man and woman on a crowded Southwest Airlines flight when the man struck up a conversation with the woman by showing her his Maker's Mark ambassador business card. To impress her further, he bragged about his insider status with the company. Spencer says he smiled to himself and offered to swap seats so as to not interrupt the conversation's flow.
Such a bond with your brand evangelists may be the envy of some, but does suggest some risk. Maker's Mark execs say its ambassador program can never end. But Maker's is owned by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which also owns Jim Beam and other liquor brands. If Maker's is required to abandon its ambassadors, could their influence turn on the brand in a negative way? Samuels senses the danger. "This approach is only hard if you are a control freak or think you are a marketing genius," he says.
Samuels decries the typical marketing practice of viewing customers as targets or demos rather than individuals. As the Maker's Mark brand grows into an icon, one that needs to start acting like a big corporate entity, "It scares the shit out of me," he says. Spoken like a true ambassador.