BrewDog is the first major brand to have its International Women's Day work detonate in its face. The Scottish craft beer brand leaned heavily on irony, humour and '#sarcasm' in releasing the Pink IPA: Beer For Girls – a parody product attempting to highlight lazy gender marketing and pay inequality.
BrewDog has a history of using bold marketing to cause a ruckus, and this week it released a pinkified for-women version of its flagship IPA, mimicking and attempting to parody a sexist marketing trope most famously defined by Bic's 'Just for Her' pens.
The campaign's press release said that the work was "BrewDog’s clarion call to close the gender pay gap in the UK and around the world and to expose sexist marketing to women".
The launch of Pink IPA came with a promise from the brand to donate 20% of profits from the new beer, and its best-selling Punk IPA product, to a STEM charity furthering women's education for the next four weeks. This good deed was eclipsed, however, by the reception to the 'Beer For Girls' positioning, which however intended, prompted fierce discussions about irony, gender stereotypes and brand communications.
There has been a division in the industry; as always there are those who subscribe to Oscar Wilde's mantra 'the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about' but others thing BrewDog's latest stunt has badly backfired.
A send-up of lazy marketing efforts
The pink bottle was supposed to be a "send-up of the lazy marketing efforts targeting the female market".
Sarah Warman, global head of marketing at BrewDog even acknowledged: "There is a long history of products that pander and patronise through harmful, sexist stereotypes and vulgar imagery, and we’re rallying to put an end to this nonsense. The love of beer is not gendered. Beer is universal. Beer is for everyone.”
Some of The Drum's readers pointed out on Twitter that the joke may have fallen flat.
I love a beer. I love craft beer. I known to be able to down a beer quicker that most men (a gift from my late father). But do I want a pink beer? NO. Would I stand in a pub proudly holding my Pink IPA. NO. Does the CSR thing give it purpose? NO. Sorry BrewDog. Not this time.
— Natasha Hill (@brownhill1) March 6, 2018
I think the idea was good, the sentiment is definitely there but it's badly executed. No one is really going to look at the thought behind the campaign, they'll just see pink bottles of beer
— Ian Stephens (@istep23) March 6, 2018
I actually liked the idea, but by not using the video as the social media launch and instead using an image of a pink bottle with Beer for Girls written on it they doomed the campaign. Satire is difficult, they added complexity to it and in an open wound of a subject.
— Nick Thompson (@NickThompson20) March 6, 2018
It's really hard for irony to come across with beer labels, and also seems like a convoluted way of trying to "do the right thing".
— Cate Sevilla (@CateSevilla) March 6, 2018
The sentiment suggested BrewDog's CSR efforts had been let down by the execution. To some, rather than satirise 'lazy marketing efforts targeting the female market' as intended, this campaign had in fact epitomised them.
Faye Lewis, head of marketing at Montreal Associates, was not a fan of the work, saying: "The whole idea plays on mobilising sexist irony, or ‘hipster sexism’ as it has been coined. The idea is lazy and inauthentic.
She said the brand, which once was the antithesis of the "traditional beer establishment", had become "predictable".
David Ogilvy's rule that "five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy” was made good on Twitter, where the crux of the campaign was lost.
This appears to have stemmed from a problem in the messaging, especially on social media. Lewis said: "Brewdog designed a marketing campaign with every hallmark of sexism and attempted to lean on its ethical brand and reputation to drive understanding... the product does not stand on its merits – without this message, they’re selling yet another pink product branded at women."
The latest work comes as part of a "long line of tired, inauthentic attempts to shock and get people talking about them," according to Lewis, and at a time when a "whole grown-up discussion takes place in the wider world right now around women and continuing inequality".
Lewis concluded: "The idea, clearly, came from a good place. The implementation, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Using irony in marketing is a perfectly acceptable strategy – what isn’t, is designing a sexist product, and then when the backlash starts, explaining that it’s just a joke."
Too much work
Graham Page, managing director of offer and innovation at Kantar Millward Brown, argued that the idea required too much effort on the part of the consumer to truly work.
Page said that below the superficial branding, BrewDog is "doing something quite clever". The problem was that an explanation, or worse a mansplanation, was required.
He offered an alternative campaign that would have been less controversial, had less critical media coverage and would have been arguably less toxic to the brand. "It may have been much better to simply sell the regular beer for less money to women – which would make the same point, without the need to understand they are being ironic with the packaging."
Getting involved in any cause so close to a landmark diary date – like International Women's Day – represents a risk for any brand. "There is always a problem with brands doing something as a one-off to make a point, as it can be seen as an attempt to cash in," said Page.
He added: "The bottom line for BrewDog is that the idea is laudable but there is a misstep in execution."
ASA's stance against harmful stereotype
Nick Breen, an associate at Reed Smith, underlined the difficulties of relying on irony, sarcasm or humour in an ad campaign.
He said: "Although the use of sarcasm, satire or irony may be seen by some as a way to mock established gender stereotypes or somehow reclaim them, the problems brands may face after the rules are introduced are that: first, subtle irony can often be missed or misinterpreted by the public; second, the brand can be accused of taking advantage of recent news stories and campaigns concerning gender equality for commercial gain."
He added that the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) new rules cutting out gender stereotypes may make such campaigns a thing of the past.
"The entire purpose of the new rules is to limit and prevent the perpetuation of established gender stereotypes. Ads which feature heightened or over-the-top stereotypes run the risk of adding to the problem through further dissemination of the damaging message, even if the ad’s aims are legitimate."
Since the backlash, BrewDog's social media accounts were quiet for 24 hours. Data from Lithium Technologies said that BrewDog failed to react to more than 1,000 responses to its original tweet - an effort that reaped 55% negative sentiment from users.
Instead, BrewDog released a statement headlined: "That escalated quickly."
It acknowledged: "For many of you - well, most of you - it seems we didn’t land the joke. The fact that people so easily believed that we were serious about the name and branding is a stark reminder of the scale of the problem. We should have done more to show that this element of the campaign was tongue in cheek."
It underlined that the campaign came from a "talented team of women at BrewDog," including its head of marketing and US CEO.
The tweet below demonstrates the lack of consistency of messaging. Chris Smith, an associate director at Ketchum illustrated the issue in one image.
For all brands, it's REALLY important to have consistent and clear messaging, ESPECIALLY when talking about real issues and nuanced subjects.
Brewdog I think, have the right intentions deep down, but god the messaging is an absolute car crash. Must do better. pic.twitter.com/j6s1k46Yx1
— Chris Smith (@chrissssmith) March 6, 2018
Hayley Smith, director of Boxed Out PR, branded the campaign's proximity to International Women's Day as "insensitive and patronising"
She added: "Though it has certainly got people talking, it has shown a darker side of the brand on several levels."
Smith said: "It diminishes women as needing everything to be pink, which is an outdated thought process, and secondly it puts the focus back on gender stereotyping and instantly isolates a large selection of its customers.
"I can understand why they did this, but I think it is bad taste to hijack the equality discussion."