BrewDog and Love: the design-for-equity agency model building a spirits brand

BrewDog's new LoneWolf design

Manchester-based design agency Love has struck up an unconventional relationship with BrewDog to help create and grow its fledgling spirits portfolio. Acknowledging the fast-moving, startup nature of the BrewDog Distilling Co, the indie agency has embraced an equity-based partnership that will reward it for hitting ambitious sales targets.

Love has already redesigned and relaunched vodka and gin brand LoneWolf, and will now bring to market new rum and whisky products. It is accepting lower base fees for the work in return for bonus incentives and shares in the business through the “Equity for Punks” scheme which boasts 100,000 “craft beer crusaders”.

Trevor Cairns, chief executive of Love, told The Drum ad land is rife with talk of disrupting agency models, but noted that it so rarely actually changes. “We have the benefit of being independent, we can change models and take risks without the pressure of a holding group," Cairns said.

After numerous informal chats with BrewDog, the brand and agency agreed a new payment model that suited both parties.

“BrewDog Distilling Co is a startup of an established brand, it can work entrepreneurially and with more agility than an established business," Cairns said. "But we have to have absolute belief in the brand and client we are partnering with.”

Cairns wouldn't have got into bed with a brand the team wasn't already "consuming". "We are completely linked to the success of it, rather than being more emotionally detached in a normal relationship.”

The agency is well-grounded in the drinks trade having created Guinness’ Storehouse experience in Dublin and numerous Johnny Walker one-shots like its Blade Runner tie-in and the Haig Club brand in 2012, fronted by freshly retiring football star David Beckham.

The agency, according to Cairns, will "share success" with the brand now.

“In the past, we have created brands or resurrected them, adding millions to the value but actually we didn't share that benefit. As an equity partner, we are now more deeply involved in the growth. The model is more progressive and interesting than we have done in the past. Rather than the fee model. You are dependent on the success of the brand ultimately.”

Tasked with “increasing the visibility” of LoneWolf following its sluggish April 2017 launch and a naming battle with a Birmingham pub, Love is now in the groove with a brand that has promised: "To go it alone and to run against the pack. To make a difference and to make our spirits differently.”

Also speaking to The Drum was David Gates, who took up the managing director role of BrewDog’s distilling wing in November 2018.

With his appointment, the craft brewing company secured a marketer with 27 years' experience at Diageo. Furthermore, Gates had a working relationship with the agency on the Johnny Walker and Haig Club accounts.

Gates picked Love having worked with many design and creative agencies in his Diageo career. He claimed some agencies were ideal to make “incremental improvements” to a brand but the BrewDog brief required something that will “stand out". "Love has some of the most provocative designers I have worked with," he said.

Gates' first act was to align the LoneWolf Spirits Company more closely with BrewDog. It launched a gin into a competitive marketplace where hundreds of new brands enter each year. But in doing so, it was failing to “leverage the power and the strength of the BrewDog brand”.

“You have to fight for your space. If you have any advantage, other than your storytelling, passion or liquid, you have to use it," Gates said. "We moved closer to the BrewDog name. People who appreciate BrewDog values and quality [of which there are many] would see that as an endorsement.”

The move into spirits is not an expansion out of the blue, Gates insisted. The Scottish company always had the ambition to make spirits and is forging ahead on the notion that "the spirits market is ripe for disruption, particular Scotch whisky.”

The Design

When redesigning LoneWolf, Love took the naming conventions, vertical typography and colour cues like the ‘Punk Blue’ from the beer brands, turning around new looks in the space of months. Similar work at another brand, according to Cairns, may have taken as long two years from conception to it appearing on shelves.

“The speed is off the charts compared to Diageo,” agreed Gates. “The pace of decisions is much more rewarding. There is a financial reward but also a creative reward – they just want to see their work out there. Creatives feed this energy back into the system.”

Love’s designers were “amazed” that their few-months-old concept was entering a retail environment already. As Cairns put it: “They are much more connected and emotionally involved with the product.”

Love’s current brief may expire in 2019 but that’s unlikely to be the end of the partnership. Gates said: “The best relationships with agencies grow over time, we are trying to get a huge amount of work done in a relatively short space of time.”

He said the metabolism for innovation is “off the charts” and added that there “is always a need for creative and design partners, this is a long-term relationship with no time limit on it”.

The new lines will get soft launched this weekend across BrewDog’s 50 UK premises. Furthermore, the new LoneWolf is already stocked at a handful of top supermarkets although talks are in the works to broaden that.

But it is the BrewDog boilermaker series, a line of exclusive partner whiskies shotted with BrewDog beer, that the brand hopes will introduce its customers to the possibilities of beer and whisky together – particularly BrewDog's. It's an introduction to spirits that may convert the beer 'punks'.

Three boilermakers have been rolled out to date: Transistor, which pairs with Punk IPA (blue, black and silver), Torpedo Tulip, which has the green and the black of Dead Pony, and finally, the Skeleton Key, fully black to match the Jet Black Heart have been rolled out to date. Gates said Love nailed the designs the first time.

In the last year, the company has launched a beer-lover streaming service and taken a swing at market incumbents like Budweiser.

BrewDog once told its fans 'not to buy the advertising' of beer rivals. As it looks to get its spirits in their hands, expect an unconventional marketing barrage in the coming months to scale up this ambitious new wing.

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