It’s been a tough year for Brewdog, much of it the brand’s own fault. Tone-deaf advertising campaigns and PR mishaps have frustrated its fans and “equity punk” investors (I speak from personal experience – I’ve been a shareholder since 2015).
The Scottish craft beer brewer, founded in 2007, is as well known for its marketing stunts as it is for Punk IPA. In the past, it’s dropped taxidermy “fat cats” out of helicopters onto the City and sold beer bottles wrapped in actual roadkill. Its latest campaign trolls rival brands like Fosters by comparing customer reviews of their beers.
But 2018 seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with several disasters doing unprecedented damage to the brand’s image, and prompting some self-reflection.
“It’s been a difficult year,” admits co-founder James Watt as we meet in Brewdog’s Tower Hill branch. “A lot of it was self-inflicted, and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves.”
Let’s start in March. To raise awareness of the gender wage gap and sexist marketing techniques, Brewdog released Pink IPA. Dubbed “beer for girls”, it came in a bottle with pink labelling and was sold at a discount for people who identified as female, with some of the proceeds going to charity.
The move backfired. Twitter erupted as people pointed out that not only was the campaign patronising, it dabbled in the sexist tropes it was trying to critique. Drinks watchdog The Portman Group also ruled that the ad appealed to children – a hard no for an alcohol brand.
After the incident, the Morning Advertiser reported that Watt was defensive. He said Pink IPA’s message was “lost in translation”, and that people didn’t get the campaign’s nuance or sarcasm.
Then in August, Brewdog launched an on-demand streaming service, which it promoted by creating a parody porn website. Confused as to what this has to do with beer? We all were. It was taken down after just a day, following another social media backlash labelling it sexist and juvenile.
One Twitter user wrote that they felt embarrassed to be a Brewdog shareholder (it wasn’t me).
Following this, Brewdog appeared to have a soul-searching moment. It published a post promising to quit the “high octane shock tactics”, stop relying on crazy stunts to get attention, and “focus more on beer”. That stance lasted less than a month.
In September, a press release allegedly from the US brewery Scofflaw emerged, promising free beers in BrewDog bars to British supporters of Donald Trump.
This apparently came as news to Watt – his team jumped into emergency mode, announcing on social media that they were cancelling the planned events with Scofflaw, and distancing themselves from the release.
“I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing,” Watt says.
“We’ve made so many anti-Trump beers and anti-Trump statements, it was just the opposite of what we stand for.”
Then the plot thickened. Scofflaw announced that it hadn’t approved the release either – it was apparently sent by a rogue employee within the brewery’s PR agency Frank, which took responsibility and apologised for the fiasco. However, the incident reflected poorly on Brewdog, especially after the promises to make its marketing more responsible.
“The Scofflaw thing was just the most bizarre,” admits Watt. “It was the last thing we needed at the time.”
But being controversial has its perks: it builds on Brewdog’s punk reputation, appeals to its fans, and helped the company when it was much smaller.
“The only way we could get people to stop and pay attention to what we were saying was to maybe have a little bit of craziness and anarchy tied up with what we were doing publicity-wise,” Watt acknowledges.
So I have my doubts that Brewdog will ever completely renounce the shock tactics.
“We still have this scrappy and feisty underdog mentality, and if you look at a global scale, we’re 2,500 times smaller than our largest competitor, so we’re still very much an underdog,” says Watt. “But now we’ve built ourselves a platform where we don’t need to wrap everything up with so much craziness from a publicity perspective to make our voice heard.”
I don’t agree that Brewdog is an underdog. Sure, if you compare yourself to the world’s biggest beer company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, you might feel that you have to make waves to get noticed. But other challenger brands haven’t needed to be controversial.
Metro Bank and Atom Bank aren’t trolling HSBC to steal their customers. Online estate agents such as Emoov and Purplebricks call out bad behaviours in their industry, but don’t name and shame anyone. Challenger brands in other sectors have managed to avoid accusations of sexism and immaturity.
And anyway, isn’t Brewdog now mainstream? It has bars around the world, brewing facilities in the US, and is building more in Australia. Brewdog beers are sold in Sainsbury’s supermarket and Wetherspoons pubs. Last year, it generated revenue of £112m, and sold a 22 per cent stake of the business to California-based private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners – a move valuing the company at £1bn. Can the brand still act like a punky startup?
“Yeah, you can buy Brewdog anywhere, this year we’ll be 0.6 per cent of the UK beer market. I think if anything is 0.6 per cent, it’s not how I’d describe mainstream,” says Watt.
“We’ve got good visibility, we’ve got good brand awareness, we’ve got a bit of momentum just now, but I think at 0.6 per cent we’re still very much at the fringes.”
Last week, Brewdog’s latest round of crowdfunding, Equity Punks V, came to a close, raising £26m. The company now has 100,000 investors, who will surely be keen to see Brewdog mature past its feisty, underdog roots – at least so that they (well, we) no longer feel embarrassed when the brand appears in the news.
Watt may not see his company as part of the mainstream, but it’s also no longer a small, struggling startup. It’s time for Brewdog to grow up, otherwise it will end up in the doghouse.