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Brand Authenticity in the Digital Age

Monday, March 4th, 2013 by Eric

Every brand makes a promise to customers. For Apple, the promise is elegantly designed, easy-to-use products. For Starbucks, it’s that customers will receive the same high-quality products and service every time they interact with the brand, around the world. For FedEx, it’s that packages will reach their destination absolutely, positively overnight.

Authentic brands are those that walk the walk. They keep their promises. According to the Authentic Brand Index, “At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best.”

Brands have always paid a price for breaking their promise, but in the old days, that price was usually limited to one or two fewer regular customers. In the digital era, by contrast, broken promises have the potential to destroy a brand. If you break your promise to them, customers will share their opinions around the world, instantly, with the click of a button or a tap on a screen, via blogs, vlogs, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and more.

The latest example: Maker’s Mark. The brand promise of Maker’s Mark is a distinctive, premium bourbon. Over the years, the brand has developed a significant base of loyal customers by delivering on that promise. Recently, though, the company announced that, for business reasons, it planned to dilute its bourbon. The announcement sent the message that money was more important to Maker’s Mark than maintaining the integrity of its signature product.

The response from the marketplace was outrage. The story was shared around the world on Facebook, and thousands of people tweeted about it. A Forbes article went so far as to ask, “Did Maker’s Mark commit brand suicide?”

It took a few days, but eventually Maker’s Mark realized that diluting its product could, in fact, destroy its brand. The company reversed its decision, announcing the change via a letter from the company’s chief operating officer, Rob Samuels, and chairman emeritus, Bill Samuels, Jr.

“You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down,” the letter says. “We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.”

This is a strong response for a brand in crisis. It recognizes that, in the digital age, companies are no longer the sole authors of their brand stories—they now co-author brands with their customers. This straight-talk response from Maker’s Mark also highlights the company’s understanding of where its customers are coming from.

I’m more a Bulleit man, but I’d give Maker’s Mark a fighting chance.

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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