How ambassadorship transformed a small company into a huge brand

When Bill Samuels founded Maker’s Mark in 1958, all of the customers lived in or around Kentucky, where the distillery was located. The loyal group of buyers had learned about the new bourbon from their friends and that was the way they liked it. From early on, Maker’s Mark didn’t care too much for advertising or marketing. The founder managed to get to know personally most of his customers and by doing so, keep his little distillery afloat for over 20 years. Little did he knew back then, that he laid the foundation for what would grow out to become one of the best ambassador programs ever.

As business grew, the problem on their hands became bigger.

The Kentucky bubble bursted in 1980. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the distillery and the secret was out. The business grew and the interest in what Maker’s was doing at the home office continued to grow steadily.
Fifteen years later, however, the family business realized that they had a problem on their hands. Unlike in Kentucky where they knew just about every one of their customers by name, the bourbon distiller then had customers in such faraway lands as Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami — and didn’t know a single soul out there.

While having cocktails with a friend one evening, Samuels’ son was venting about how great it was to have all this new business but that somehow the “idea” of what they were doing: sharing the story, getting to know their customers/friends was getting lost. New markets were emerging, but they had lost personal contact.

Building a brand by never selling a product

A friend of his advised to create an Ambassador program. Using available technology, Maker’s Mark could allow far-off brand friends to connect with the people and the place who make their whisky. The company took his advice, and a few years later the Ambassador program was launched: The Embassy.

Back in the days Bill Samuels already understood the power of word of mouth marketing. He never wanted to “sell a product”, he’d rather built a strong relationship with his customers.

In 1981, Maker’s Mark’s founder was already being a better conversation manager than most of the modern day brands’ social media managers are. (Pictures: courtesy of Maker’s Mark)

Ambassadors have never been an add-on tactic.

At a young stage, Bill Samuels understood the power of recommendations. “Why spend millions of dollars on advertising if you could let people do the talk for you?” he would have thought. And so he put the customer in the centre of his organization, trying to convert every single buyer into an ambassador and planning the entire marketing strategy from this ambassador perspective. Bill didn’t see an ambassador as an add-on to his marketing strategy, he saw the ambassador as the starting point of it.

Who wouldn’t want to hold a highfalutin title?

Over the past 25 years, the bourbon distillery hasn’t changed its strategy. On the contrary, digital transformation made the company switch gears and enabled them to connect with their customers even more.

Today, people can join “the official Maker’s Mark’s Embassy” and become a true brand ambassador by signing in on their website. What’s great about the sign in/sign up page is the way the company is creating a curious and proud feeling. Who wouldn’t want to hold a highfalutin title?

Thinking from the ambassador point of view

Once you hit the Sign Up button, the distillery starts with summing up what’s in it for us as an ambassador. They clearly think from the ambassador’s point of view instead of the company’s perspective.

Being a Maker’s Mark ambassador gives you both online and offline privileges. Once you registered, an Ambassador’s Kit with a personalized note card and a stack of business cards with your name on them is being sent to your home by mail in the USA and Canada to remind you of your ambassadorship. The note is signed by Bill Samuels Jr.

(Picture: courtesy of Jackie Huba)

Give, give, give, …

But the distillery is doing so much more (than actually making the bourbon) to keep their ambassadors warm.

When signing up to the Embassy, new ambassadors have to type down a name (first and lastname or a nickname), which Maker’s Mark then engraves on a metal plate and attaches to your ‘own’ barrel. To prove this, the company takes a picture of the actual barrel and uploads it onto the ambassador’s member page. During the 6 or 7 years of the aging process, the ambassadors can check in on the progress of their ‘own’ bourbon.

But the best is yet to come. When your barrel reaches maturity, you get informed and invited over to the brewery to pick up a bottle of your own, personalized bourbon with your own name on it.

(Picture: courtesy of West Virginia Mountain Mama)

To make sure the ambassadors don’t forget about Maker’s Mark during those 7 years of patiently waiting, the distillery communicates with the ambassadors through a mobile app. The ‘Ambassadors in Chief’ send texts messages to the ambassadors, invite them to secret events, give them discounts on products or give them 101 lessons in the distilling and tasting of bourbon. The company even sends a Christmas gift with a note included to their advocates every year. The only thing Bill asks for in the note is to take a picture of/with the present and post it on social media. What a small prize, right!?

(Picture: courtesy of Bourbon of the Day)

What brand would you recommend to your bourbon-sipping friends?

And that’s the only thing Bill Samuels and his sons ask from you. You don’t have to pay for the engraved metal plate nor for your personalized bottles of fine bourbon. You don’t have to like their Facebook page or retweet the company’s tweets. The company solely relies on the power of word of mouth and when you give more than you ask, people will always talk about you in a positive way. Even people who never have purchased a Maker’s Mark bourbon before are becoming ambassadors. If it isn’t for the secret events or to learn about the aging process of bourbon, it’s because of the Christmas gifts or the free personalized bourbon. But guess what brand pops up, top of mind, when this non-customer ever thinks about getting himself or someone else a neat bottle of bourbon? And think about the thousands of true ambassadors who are convincing their bourbon loving friends to drink Maker’s Mark.

Instead of investing a small marketing budget on advertising, Bill Samuels invested in his customers. And what he got in return is an incredibly loyal group of advocates and ambassadors who are spreading the word both online and offline.

Originally published at