The Next-Mark leadership team often shares stories of brands and companies that have influenced our perception of the marketing industry and shaped the way we do business. Our focus tends to center around the start-ups that beat to different drums, color outside the lines and embrace the unconventional. These companies create the inspiration – the “AHA!”
Deep in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country – in the tiny town of Loretto – the small-batch bourbon distiller Maker’s Mark has been providing its premium bourbon whisky (note the lack of an “e” there) since the 1950s. The creation of the Samuels family, Maker’s Mark is all about tradition and (at least according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) “whisky” is the official spelling … not to mention that Whisky Creek runs smack through the Loretto distillery property.
Maker’s Mark works hard to maintain its fiercely loyal following, both within the distilling process and beyond it – from its trademark black rick houses (barrel warehouses) with red shutters to its iconic square-shaped, long-necked bottles, each individually hand-dipped in red sealing wax. Unsurprisingly, this extends to the marketing world as well. And that’s where the Ambassador program comes in.
By recruiting its customers to become good-will ambassadors, Maker’s Mark turns them loose to spread the good word far and wide – globally, in fact. (The distiller was recently acquired by Suntory Holdings Ltd., a privately-owned Japanese company.) Now, this isn’t the only such program out there, but Maker’s Mark diligently massages these avid followers to maintain interest and loyalty.
A visit to the distillery will get an ambassador the white-glove treatment, a special nametag and repeated hearty greetings from distillery employees throughout the visit. But, that’s only the beginning. Ambassadors also can have their names added to a barrel of bourbon and – since Maker’s Mark is one of the few remaining distillers to rotate its barrels – are regularly notified of its progress through the six-year aging process when the barrel is periodically moved around the rick house to absorb the environmental differences in temperature.
When their barrel matures and the bourbon is ready to be bottled, ambassadors can come by the distillery for the opportunity to buy a couple of personalized bottles and hand-dip them in that red wax. (Ambassadors are known to make that trip without hesitation.) Periodic emails and a password-accessed area on the distiller’s website keeps ambassadors in the know about events such as its annual Thoroughbreds & Redheads horse racing weekend coinciding with the Kentucky Derby.
Other premiums, such as DVD’s, etc., occasionally pop up in ambassadors’ mailboxes just to keep them up to date on news, bourbon and distilling in general. Every Christmas, a special ambassador gift arrives as well – Maker’s Mark wrapping paper, bottle cozies, ice cube molds and glassware are recent examples. All this attention helps market the product, but also makes customers feel not only valued, but part of the family. And that’s what it’s all about.