Rittenhouse Whiskey Overreacts to a Crisis by Association

Heaven Hill Distillery Issues Last Call for People Celebrating Kyle Rittenhouse’s Acquittal    

11/29/21 – – The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse has become one of the most polarizing events in recent memory. Since the not-guilty verdict earlier this month, 18-year-old Rittenhouse has been lionized by some as a selfless hero and castigated by others as a racist vigilante. It’s the kind of emotional, politically charged public debate in which no company would ever choose to engage on either side.

That is unless you are Heaven Hill Distillery, marketers of Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey.

Three days after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty on all counts, Kentucky-based Heaven Hill issued this statement on its social media platforms:

We have been disheartened to learn that some individuals and businesses have been using our Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey brand to celebrate the Kyle Rittenhouse case verdict, despite the profound loss of life from those events.

There is no link between our Rittenhouse Rye brand, which was started post-Prohibition to commemorate Rittenhouse Square, and this case.

It is our strongly held belief that in serious matters such as this, where lives were lost and people deeply affected, there is no cause for celebration, but instead deep reflection on how we can make the world a more peaceful and respectful place for all.

Predictably, a Twitter storm erupted within minutes. Almost 100-percent of the tweets were 100-proof rebukes of the company’s preachy cease-and-desist message. Here are a few examples clean enough to share:

You should be proud that people that drink your whiskey are celebrating that our second amendment rights were confirmed as well as our right to self defense.

Hypocrisy, how many drunk driving deaths have they caused, and liver damage, etc. etc.

The correct response to people buying your product, for any reason, is to shut up and take the money.

Heaven Hill’s decision to jump into this briar patch was an overreaction to a reputational predicament I call a “crisis by association.” They’re more common than you think, and can be a brand manager’s worst nightmare:

Kool-Aid being linked to the Jonestown cult’s mass suicide; the news media identifying TIKI Brand backyard tiki torches being carried by members of the Ku Klux Klan through the dark streets of Charlottesville; Skittles candies being associated with the killing of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood-watch volunteer; Ambien becoming a focus of Roseanne Barr’s racist Twitter rant against Obama administration advisor Valerie Jarret; Corona beer being associated with the coronavirus; Anderson Cooper drawing Olive Garden into the January 6 Capitol Hill siege.

In the vast majority of crises by association, engaging in the dialogue just makes things worse. People are smart enough to see that the brand being drawn into the fire has nothing to do with the controversy.  So, why do companies take the bait?

Overly sensitive, offended company officials may force a response. “We can’t stay silent about this . . . we have to let the public know where we stand.” (They fail to take into consideration that in today’s toxic political environment any position taken will turn-off 50-percent of Americans.)  Other times, misguided marketing folks don’t want the extraordinary opportunity for “exposure” to pass them by. “It’s free publicity . . . potential customers who never heard of us before will now know our name and give us a try.” (If this marketing approach were sound, Chernobyl would be a top tourist destination.)

Making Heaven Hill’s unforced error even worse, I would guess that rye whiskey is more popular in rural Georgia than it is in Georgetown. Judging by the negative response on social media, any support Heaven Hill may have won on the left has been overwhelmed by resentment on the right. Those in favor of the Rittenhouse acquittal are likely to keep celebrating, but with another brand of whiskey.

The lesson here: Silence should be the default position when confronted with a crisis by association. If Heaven Hill senior management insisted on a response, the second paragraph of the company’s statement would have sufficed: “There is no link between our Rittenhouse Rye brand, which was started post-Prohibition to commemorate Rittenhouse Square, and this case.”

So join me in a toast to trusting in your customers’ common sense and never turning a manageable crisis by association into a serious case of collateral brand damage.

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