Brewdog’s downfall has been a long time coming. And BBC’s Disclosure exposé ensured that, even if the business continues to go from strength to strength, the reputation of its founders as freewheeling punks with progressive hearts of gold is dead.
The problem is that in self-defining as renegade rulebreakers while also peddling the mantra that ‘everything is marketing’, James Watt and Martin Dickie overlooked the fact that marketing, PR and communications have sets of unwritten but utterly intrinsic rules that govern the long-term health of any public entity’s reputation.
Instead of abiding by these tenets, the duo became mired in hubris and lost in the bubble of the cult that formed around them.
For a start-up to grow at Brewdog-speed, a maverick personality is essential; but long-term success requires the right balance between retaining this identity and passion, and successfully evolving and growing into a mainstream entity.
Toxic fame is the enemy of this ambition. Brewdog were desperate to create an external image of progressive punks with Hollywood charisma, but this false idol arose atop hollow internal foundations, and the founders are now being crushed by their own relentless pursuit of notoriety.
Understanding how this happened requires examining the rules that increasingly govern fame in the 2020s. These principles have underpinned the anointment of such stars as Greta Thunberg and Marcus Rashford, and are evident in the success of ethical, fun and commercially successful brands like Tony Chocolonely (whose biggest misstep to date might be their partnership with Brewdog).
The first new rule for fame is to have a strong, bold, polemic point of view. This underpinned a lot of Brewdog’s initial success; their stand against big corporations and bland, mass-produced beer, combined with their original branding and humorous but confrontational tone-of-voice, helped them stand out.
From this platform, Brewdog then embraced the second fundament of success in the 2020s: purpose. Bluntly, if you want a strong reputation, you need to be making the world a better place. This notion has also been crucial to Brewdog’s success: their evolution from non-specific anti-establishment figures to champions of progressive causes, business disruptors, and then environmental denizens all won them fans and plaudits.
These were among the building blocks of Brewdog’s initial positive external perception, but whereas in bygone eras – when information was less easily available and public trust was above rock bottom- the transmission of these values alone may have been enough to sustain fame and success, a much more solid foundation is required in the 20s, and this is where Brewdog fell spectacularly short.
Firstly, any polemic or statement of purpose must be built on substance. Take Brewdog’s current sustainability drive. Disclosure casts doubt on the validity of its offsetting by implicating the owners’ use of private jets, questioning how many trees had been planted in the company’s estate in Scotland, and suggesting that the company were effectively relying on the taxpayer to help foot the bill for the trees.
Then there’s authenticity. Values, opinions, or even substantial actions have less impact on a reputation if underpinned by cynicism rather than passion. Here again, Brewdog has fallen short. In an incident that may become a symbol of the brand as a whole, Brewdog was censured by the ASA because its ‘solid gold’ beer can did not match its description. Disclosure also alleged, as many in the PR and marketing industry suspected, that other stunts such as the ‘beer brewed at 30,000ft’, ‘rogue employee puts swear words on cans’ or ‘Elvis deed poll name change’ were, if not outright fabulations, then at the very least stage-managed gimmicks. Although more trivial than other accusations, if true these incidents add credence to a view of Brewdog as a brand motivated by cynicism rather than passion.
Then there’s consistency: don’t be a hypocrite. This is where things get serious for Brewdog. Firstly, there’s the Equity for Punks scheme. There have always been questions about how comfortably that model of fan-ownership sat with the brand’s sale of 22% of the company to a private equity firm. The allegation in Disclosure that TSG were sold shares at lower prices than the ‘equity punks’ could buy them escalated this unease into an outright scandal for a company who built its reputation on an anti-corporate platform (once throwing taxidermied ‘fat cats’ out of a helicopter onto City of London). Nor is it great that the CEO of the company who raged against the faceless dirge of the beer market, according to the same source, owned shares in Heineken. Worst of all is that a brand who constantly, earnestly and self-congratulatingly espouses progressive values was alleged in the documentary to be running a toxic workplace culture.
What makes this all worse is Brewdog’s owners’ lack of humility along the way. Disclosure gleefully pointed out ‘lessons’ from James Watt’s Business for Punks book paraphrased along the lines of ‘don’t take advice’, ‘don’t ask for permission’ and ‘why spend your own money when you can spunk others’?’ Such Trumpian braggadocio, however dressed up as an insouciant hipster rebellion, not only rubs salt in the wounds of those negatively impacted by their other behaviours, but adds to the zeal of potential enemies.
Ultimately Brewdog’s founders have been overtaken by a rapidly changing and unforgiving world. One day you are an anarchist punk creating a beer revolution, the next you’re a multimillionaire CEO threatening the BBC with legal action in order to protect your share price ahead of an IPO. From Bart Simpson, skateboard and catapult in tow; to Mr Burns, surrounded by sycophantic lawyers and fuming at the new world. Brewdog’s strategy of using Gen X tropes to espouse millennial values in an increasingly Gen Z world has resolutely failed, and it will be hard to see how the brand recovers its reputation from here.