This week BrewDog released what has been praised in some quarters as the 'best corporate statement of all time' with a faux apology to alcohol regulator the Portman Group. Alex Myers, whose communications agency Manifest London handles BrewDog's PR strategy, recently spoke to The Drum about what it's like to work on one of the UK's most provocative brands.
"We are sorry for never giving a shit about anything the Portman Group has to say..."
As corporate statements go, BrewDog’s response to criticism from the drinks industry regulator certainly takes some beating.
Authored by the company’s co-founder James Watt, the attack on the “gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing international drinks giants” will go down in PR lore. But it is only the latest in a long line of combative campaigns from the Scottish brewer – ranging from producing bottles out of taxidermied animals to putting steroids in beer.
The shock tactics are dreamed up by Watt, his fellow BrewDog co-founder Martin Dickie and Manifest London, the communications agency led by Alex Myers.
Before BrewDog's latest masterclass in headline-grabbing, I had interviewed Myers (pictured above) about shock tactics and what it’s like to be on the front line for one of the UK’s most provocative brands.
“The response from journalists generally is, ‘is this for real?’,” Myers laughs. “So it’s our job to convince them that we are mad enough to do that.”
He insists, however, that the brand doesn’t merely employ shock for shock’s sake.
“BrewDog took a lot of its cultural values from the punk ethos – not necessarily just looking at music, but looking at how punk rock existed as an alternative to pop culture. BrewDog wanted to exist as an alternative to what people perceive beer to be.
“James and Martin have built a business that’s about getting people to be as passionate about beer as they are. BrewDog is a craft beer brand and it needs to all come back to the beer. The beer’s the hero. The shock tactics are just born from the passion, the desire, to get people to understand that.”
One of the first controversial campaigns Myers worked on with BrewDog was dubbed ‘The End of History’.
“That was the first big project that we did that caused a little bit of controversy, and we began to understand the potential of that to build BrewDog’s reputation.
“The End of History was the world’s most alcoholic beer at 55 per cent, the world’s most expensive beer at £700 a bottle, and it came packaged in taxidermied animals – we had seven stoats, four squirrels and a hare.”
The point was to make people reassess the value of beer and how it should be drunk, and ultimately start a movement away from the “four per cent tepid lager” which dominated pubs. The stoats, squirrels and hare ensured the message was heard. “We still get coverage for that day in day out.”
Empowered by that success, the brand’s campaigns got bigger and bolder.
Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, BrewDog released a special edition beer named Never Mind the Anabolics, containing steroids and other substances allegedly popular – though most certainly banned – among athletes.
“When we were putting steroids and other banned substances in beer, the initial reaction from the media was shock, disdain and disgust," Myers recalls. "But then we were able to talk to them about the chemicals that are in beer – that started a whole discussion.”
Topics which would be deemed off-limits for most mainstream beer brands are lapped up by BrewDog. In typical challenger brand fashion, it is a natural champion of the outsider and the oppressed.
Hence ‘My name is Vladimir’, the beer released earlier this year to mark the 2014 Winter Olympics and protest against President Putin’s archaic laws around homosexuality. With tongue firmly implanted in cheek, the label instructed that this beer was ‘not for gays’. This one did give Myers a degree of trepidation.
“We weren’t just talking about other breweries. We were talking about one of the most powerful men in the world.
“And I’ve got to say there was a point where we’d developed the idea, we’d written the copy for the bottle, established the whole story and had the product ready to go on the website, and you pick up the phone to a journalist and you think ‘what the fuck are we doing? Is this actually going to work? Is everyone going to think we’re insane? Is anyone going to believe us?’", he admits.
“To some extent, if I don’t get that little bit of panic then I don’t think we’re necessarily pushing it from the last idea.”
But how long can BrewDog – and indeed other challenger brands employing shock tactics – continue with this approach? Myers concedes "there is a limit", but believes that limit is only determined by relevance to the target market.
“There is a line, but I don’t think it’s set by public tastes or potential controversy. It’s just set by the realms of being relevant as a beer brand,” Myers says.
“For me I’m really frustrated with the idea that ‘nobody does that in our industry’ can be an excuse for not doing something in the boardroom. What I really enjoy doing with BrewDog, and what we enjoy as a team, is never ever seeing that. If nobody does it in the industry then that’s something BrewDog has to go and stake a claim in.
“BrewDog understands that having a giant set of bollocks can be a benefit for a brand, so why not use them?”
Alex was interviewed during Advertising Week Europe as part of The Drum's forthcoming shock documentary, a film exploring the use of shock tactics in advertising. More details about the film, produced by The Drum, will be released soon.