BrewDog must steer a new course amid toughest PR challenge yet

Controversy has always been key to the BrewDog brand, but the high-profile attack on the brewer and pub chain by former employees may represent its sternest reputational test so far.

Controversial: an ad celebrating BrewDog's carbon-negative status fell foul of Advertising Standards Authority rules
Controversial: an ad celebrating BrewDog's carbon-negative status fell foul of Advertising Standards Authority rules

The strongly-worded open letter accuses BrewDog's leaders of "lies, hypocrisy and deceit" over various PR campaigns, of instilling "fear" among staff, and fostering a culture within craft beer that "deifies founders, and gives weight to sexist and misogynistic brewers who claim to be standing up for free speech".

It calls for "genuine, meaningful change", starting with an apology.

BrewDog co-founder James Watt responded within a few hours, apologising and stating: “We aren’t going to make excuses, we’re going to take action."

BrewDog received more criticism after the union Unite Hospitality revealed existing staff had been asked to sign a counter letter about their positive experiences at the company:

The timing is unfortunate, given that BrewDog is among the high-profile supporters of a new recruitment campaign to encourage people to work in the hospitality sector, which has been badly hit by the COVID-19.

As a former journalist in the hospitality industry, BrewDog is a company I've followed since it started making waves in the late 2000s.

It's hard to overstate the impact the firm, founded in Fraserburgh, near Aberdeen, in 2007, has had on the UK beer industry. BrewDog may not have been the first British 'craft' brewer (a notoriously difficult category to define), but its growth and impact have been extraordinary. The company stimulated the rise of a generation of brewers that saw themselves as a new movement, distinct from what they viewed as faceless global behemoths peddling mass-market fizz and of old-fashioned breweries favoured by portly men in beards and sandals.

It helped that BrewDog's beers were genuinely good. Its 'big break' came after the nascent company won first, second, third and fourth place in a homebrewing competition run by Tesco, subsequently winning a listing with the supermarket. BrewDog and a few other notable peers weren't the only reason for the growth in UK craft beer – tax breaks for small brewers, known as Progressive Beer Duty, introduced in 2002, added a new incentive for start-ups. But for the first time in years, beer was genuinely cool again.

Disrupt

BrewDog was a classic disrupter brand. It stated aim was to "revolutionise" the beer industry and completely redefine British beer-drinking culture. Marketing and PR was crucial, and much credit should go to Manifest, which worked with the brand from the start (although they later parted ways). BrewDog would pick fights with the brewing establishment, including the Campaign for Real Ale and Guinness owner Diageo, and became known for eye-catching stunts, from producing beers packaged inside the bodies of dead animals to launching a 'protest' beer mocking Vladimir Putin over Russia's anti-homosexuality laws.

The problem was, for a brand that billed itself as progressive force, BrewDog was increasingly accused of failing in this area. It was criticised for launching a fake porn website as a content delivery service, and the founders were accused of mocking trans women, sex workers and homeless people with a video from 2015. Some commentators pointed to a disconnection between BrewDog's use of the slogan "Keep on rocking in the free world" and its opening of a bar in communist China.

Stories started emerging online about a 'toxic' working culture at the company. There was a backlash in some quarters against the 'laddish', confrontational style that started to feel like an anathema in the era of #MeToo and increasing social activism. BrewDog made its name at a time when scrutiny of brands' activities on social media was less intense than it is at present.

It's also worth mentioning the row in 2019 between BrewDog and Manifest after the agency's founder, Alex Myers, called out the brewer for using its idea without credit. The dispute was later resolved "amicably".

The COVID-19 era seemed to offer some redemption. BrewDog garnered positive press after pledging to start producing hand sanitiser and its environmental credentials were heightened when the company bought a forest in Scotland to offset its carbon emissions.

My view is that BrewDog's brand still feels caught between the 'punk'/disrupter of the late 2000s and early 2010s and a modern, progressive employer with purpose at its heart. The punk branding seems increasingly at odds with the fact that BrewDog, whether its founders like it or not, is now part of the establishment: a global empire that generated revenue of £238m in 2020, despite the pandemic, with an estate of bars and breweries across the world. The challenge will be to evolve while keeping the fun and lively elements of the brand that so many people enjoy.

More importantly, BrewDog must show humility and demonstrate the concrete steps it is taking to address the serious concerns raised by former employees.

It is difficult to see the negative publicity generated impacting the fast-growing company to a huge extent in the short term. But as pubs and hospitality across the world start to open up again, consumers may be reassessing their choices of venue, and of tipple. It's the kind of backlash that risks permanent damage to BrewDog's reputation among a new generation of socially-aware drinkers.

The episode is also a clear lesson about the importance of internal comms in the modern era. For a company built on superb external PR and marketing, it's somewhat ironic that dissatisfaction from within has caused its biggest reputational crisis to date.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in