Something about Suntory buying Jim Beam feels wrong

The Japanese beverage company, Suntory, recently made a $16B bid for Jim Beam, the maker of Kentucky bourbon. While we should all be accustomed to multinationals buying American companies, this one seems particularly troublesome from a brand perspective and this is why:

The reason Jim Beam® Bourbon is the world’s #1 Kentucky bourbon is because we’ve been at it for over 200 years. Seven generations of Beams have kept our secret bourbon-making process alive, while battling the wilds of Kentucky, the Great Depression, two wars, and a pesky little thing called Prohibition. Now you can see our 200-year legacy come to life, and sample our Kentucky bourbon, at the new American Stillhouse right here in Clermont, KY. Come as friends, leave as family.

The above was taken directly from Jim Beam’s website and, if there is one thing it screams, it is that Jim Beam is American. Its brand is authentically American and part of the American story. Suntory, on the other hand, is not American. Even if you consider its role in the film “Lost in Translation,” it is Japanese. While I know there are some very fine Japanese whiskies in the Suntory family, they are not American bourbon.

photo_2_be87aa6b9704d522768780ef1b883211This situation is similar to when InBev (of Belgium) bought Budweiser, the dominant beer brand in America. Budweiser has lost share since, although no one knows if the InBev ownership has anything to do with that. (Microbrews upping their share as a sub-category might have more to do with it.) But Budweiser is no longer as strong as an authentic American brand.

What is lost in this is the fact that, at the end of the day, Jim Beam did not believe its own story or believed that money was an acceptable substitute for authenticity. Whatever the case, I wonder if the loyal drinkers of Beam (and there are a great many) will notice or care. I would hope they would because, in the highly competitive US spirits market, just a few percentage points of share mean a great deal – especially to a local or regional bourbon distiller.

But really this is just another example of companies believing what they do internally is more important than what their customers think. Jacob Böhm believed so much in his vision of bourbon in America that he changed his name to Beam to be more “American.”

Too bad that vision and belief faded when the dollar signs came into view.