Making its Mark on the bourbon market

Related tags Bourbon Brand

BOURBON IS struggling like most other categories in the UK spirits market but retains the image of a sexy young stud up against the rather more...

BOURBON IS struggling like most other categories in the UK spirits market but retains the image of a sexy young stud up against the rather more tweedy scotch and Irish whiskies.

Its hopes for growth are, not surprisingly, the same as most categories - mixability and carefully cultivating its audience. Maker's Mark provides a good case study.

The fourth-largest bourbon brand in the UK, Maker's Mark occupies a category that, according to Nielsen, declined in the on-trade by 5.3 per cent in value terms in the year to May 2008.

To put this fall into context, Nielsen figures show that while the value of blends, or scotch, declined 4.4 per cent in the same period, Irish whiskey grew by 19 per cent.

Maker's Mark is on a PR blitz at the moment to reverse bourbon's downward spiral and persuade the trade of the quality of the product.

Many associate this type of whiskey with forceful, intense flavours, but Rob Samuels, associate brand manager of Maker's Mark says he would like to see it regarded as having subtle taste profiles - "a bourbon that would not blow your ears off", as he puts it.

Samuels adds that the best way of getting this across is by educating bar- staff and customers about the process of production.

You can see a similar approach in Tennessee whiskey Jack Daniel's high-profile advertising.

As a mixer

Every spirit under the sun seems to be on a mixability agenda at the moment. Brands which owners were once happy to be drunk on their own are being redefined as bases for long drinks. Maker's Mark is no different.

"Handmade bourbon and handmade cocktails can make magic together," says Samuels.

Nielsen consultant Graham Page says bourbon fares poorly in comparison with scotch and Irish because of its popularity in Young Persons Venues, which themselves are finding conditions even more difficult than more traditional pubs.

It is true that bourbon has become the domain of young drinkers, far more so than Irish or scotch. So is this something bourbon makers want to preserve?

Samuels ducks the question, saying only that Maker's Mark avoids aggressive marketing and that it is popular because "consumers are looking for a more refined experience".

Not so long ago bourbon was seen as the great hope for saving that preserve of the younger drinker - the ready-to-drink market.

Mocking formats

Diageo launched bourbon-based Slate 20, but withdrew it in 2007.

This is one direction for bourbon that Samuels believes is not appropriate, pointing to a recent advertising campaign (pictured) mocking formats that he believes cheapen its image. Otherwise he is easy about how drinkers consume Maker's Mark. "There's no right or wrong way to drink Maker's Mark," explains Samuels.

It seems, though, that there is a right way to market a spirits brand. Bourbon's sexy young stud is using similar tactics to many other brands to get even sexier.

Rob Samuels CV

• Started as Maker's Mark sales development manager, was promoted to regional manager, to market manager, then to his current position of associate brand manager

• Graduated from University of South Carolina in 1996 in finance and sociology

• Aged nine, his first advertisement for the brand was named best business ad of 1982 in Forbes magazine

• Growing up, worked many jobs at the distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, from operating the roller mill to acting as a tour guide

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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