Okay, it’s not exactly a full-blown apology, but the words “for that we apologize” do appear in a statement released today by the Boston Beer Co. regarding what they characterize as “clarification” of “what really happened in Portland, Oregon.”
The statement begins:
The Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, wishes Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams the best of luck in his pursuit of higher office. And guess what – Samuel Adams Beer has in no way ever suggested that Sam Adams the candidate cannot use his own name. But, according to recent stories in the media, it sure hasn’t looked that way.
Which I guess is their way of saying Intellectual Property Manager Helen Bornemann never said “she’s willing to discuss Adams’ use of his name on his Web sites “probably for the length of the time the election is being held,” as was reported by the Associated Press. It sure looks like a direct quote. It would nice to have a more definitive answer about that statement, because frankly that’s the one that stuck in my craw. She either said it or she didn’t. Which is it?
Boston Beer continues:
A little history: last week The Boston Beer Company learned that an individual named Dave Anderson of Portland, Oregon had registered two domain names that featured the name Sam Adams. Not knowing his intent, we sent him a letter asking him not to use these sites. Next thing we knew, we had a call from the legal department at broadcasting conglomerate, Clear Channel, at which point we learned that Dave Anderson is a DJ at Clear Channel’s KEX radio and that a man named Sam Adams was indeed running for Mayor of Portland. We wish we had learned a little more about Portland’s race for mayor before sending out that initial letter, and for that we apologize.
Notice how in the statement they use the passive phrase “asking him not to use these sites.” Reread the original letter again and see if that sounds like they’re just “asking?”
The only thing they really admit to in the letter is that they “wish [they] had learned a little more about Portland’s race for mayor before sending out that initial letter.” Amen, that is the problem in a nutshell. And that’s the only thing they’re apologizing for, that they wish they’d “learned a little more.” I hate to keep beating a dead horse, especially over a company I generally like a great deal, but that sure seems like a pretty half-hearted apology. Notice that they’re not actually apologizing for sending the letter, making threats or not using a more measured approach or even for Bornemann’s statement that “she’s willing to discuss Adams’ use of his name on his Web sites ‘probably for the length of the time the election is being held.'”
They go on to say that they reacted so swiftly because they’ve had bad experiences in the past and characterize themselves as “a small company.” Technically that’s correct because the federal standard for a brewery business to qualify as a small business it must have less than 500 employees. According to Google Finance, Boston Beer has approximately 433. Certainly they’re smaller than Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors and even Pabst, but with total revenues last year exceeding $285 million they are the biggest microbrewery in the country, and by a pretty wide margin. The next closest brewery is Yuengling, and while they’re privately held so I don’t know their revenue, I do know they have only 185 employees and are not distributed nationwide. With numbers so much larger than a majority of their peers, calling them small seems a little hard to swallow. I doubt they talk about themselves that way to investors. But if you’re trying to garner a little sympathy, the underdog card is always a good one to play.
They go on to explain their actions:
Why did we ask Clear Channel and Dave Anderson not to use those domain names? In the past we have experienced times when individuals and organizations have tried to use our brand name for commercial purposes or to disparage our good name. We have learned that, as a small company, we need to protect our identity. At the least we wanted to prevent a situation where people looking for our Web site end up linked to a radio station promotional site.
On the other hand, there have been occasions over the years when individuals actually named “Sam Adams” have registered domain names that included the words Sam Adams, and we have had no quarrel with that.
Those are, of course, all legitimate reasons and any company should protect its intellectual property. But as they say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. When you use a bludgeon, you should expect things might go awry. Would it have mattered if Bornemann had waited another day or even a few hours to send the letter, giving her ample time to figure out the true nature of the situation she was facing? Would such a modest delay have weakened her case? Could she not have called her company’s local field representatives and/or the distributors of Samuel Adams beer working in the Portland area soliciting what they knew? Could she not have looked up the website of the radio station or the name “Sam Adams” along with the modifier “mayor?” I think any of these actions might have been quite revealing and saved her company much grief.
But there’s one more thing I think would make all of this go away, and that’s perhaps the hardest thing for any modern company or person, for that matter, to do: and that would be giving an unqualified apology or just saying a blanket “I’m sorry.” I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for people these days, but it does seem spin always gets in the way. You almost never hear people just simply say they’re sorry. Instead they “regret,” or “wish it had been different” or some other similar device so it sounds like they’re apologizing without actually doing so. There’s a great phrase used in a song by one of my favorite songwriter/singers, John Wesley Harding, and the line is “naked as a true apology.” And I think that nicely captures people’s feelings today about apologizing, that it somehow makes them vulnerable or open to attack. But sometimes it really is the best thing to do, right or wrong. I’ll even start the ball rolling. To all of the people I’ve met over the years and who are my friends at the Boston Beer Co., I’m sorry for having been so hard on the company over the last couple of days.