It's a proud rule-breaker, but will BrewDog’s ‘toxic culture’ crisis threaten the brand?
BrewDog built itself up as an anti-establishment rule-breaking brand that doesn’t-give-a-shit. Now it’s facing harsh criticism from staff over its working conditions that may force it to start.
What will be the impact of BrewDog's latest crisis on its public perception?
BrewDog has always worn rule-breaking as a badge of honour and a statement of intent. But newly surfaced allegations of a "culture of fear" at the company – and its subsequent response – threaten to become more emblematic of the craft brand than its anarchic public-facing persona.
On Thursday 10 June an open letter was published from former BrewDog staff criticising the brand for being a “cult of personality” first and a safe place to work a distant second. The letter has to date has been signed by more than 100 people including 45 who chose not to be named publicly “who did not feel safe to include either their names or initials”. It cites, among other things, “genuine safety concerns” in addition to a culture that prioritised image over the wellbeing of its staff.
A snap poll for The Drum carried out on the day the letter hit headlines clearly demonstrated that interest in the story was starting to spread beyond the band of the craft beer industry. Conducted by OnePulse, it found that a third of people were already aware of the open letter posted on Twitter (34%) and that half of those polled (50.2%) said the letter had changed their opinion of BrewDog for the worse.
That was further amplified by the response from satirists and humour sites, which took inspiration from the BrewDog PR handbook to create mock-ups of non-existent products in response.
You made your voices heard. We listened. It's clear we have work to do. And that starts here.
DAMAGE CONTROL (5.6%) is an INCONSOLABLE India Pale Ale. This is an UNAPOLOGETICALLY APOLOGETIC beer filled with a PENITENT PUNCH of COMPUNCTIOUS hops with a CONTRITE clean finish. pic.twitter.com/BYSbdTD8aK— Chris Thorburn (@CBThorburn) June 10, 2021
In the aftermath ‘Punks With Purpose’ – the collective behind the open letter – also reported that current staff were being asked to sign a letter in response, which also drew criticism due to an insinuation that livelihoods were being threatened. The letter appears to have been leaked and subsequently pulled. BrewDog co-founder James Watt subsequently issued a statement apologising and promising to “endeavour to honour that effort and courage with the real change it deserves”.
To add insult to injury @BrewDog CEO has now sent an email round all staff encouraging them to sign a counter letter dismissing the deeply-held fears of current and former staff. Deplorable stuff from @BrewDogJames Please do not sign this letter. pic.twitter.com/WHTdZXH2ar
To add insult to injury @BrewDog CEO has now sent an email round all staff encouraging them to sign a counter letter dismissing the deeply-held fears of current and former staff. Deplorable stuff from @BrewDogJames
Please do not sign this letter. pic.twitter.com/WHTdZXH2ar— Unite Hospitality (@FairHospitality) June 10, 2021
The Drum asked BrewDog to confirm the timeline of events but did not receive that answer, only the statement from Watt.
BrewDog has risen to become the UK's largest craft brewery after building its brand on brash advertising campaigns and stunts that proudly declared it didn’t care what people thought of it.
When The Portman Group said the craft brewer had encouraged anti-social behaviour and binge drinking with its Dead Pony Club ale advertising, Watt launched a PR campaign dubbing the alcohol industry watchdog a bunch of "gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing international drinks giants".
It’s also had multiple run-ins with the Advertising Standards Authority, which it once dubbed as “motherfuckers” who “have no jurisdiction over us”, and been embroiled in a number of public spats with brands, breweries and ad agencies.
The ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude was carefully honed over years by its former PR agency Manifest, which it unceremoniously parted ways with in 2019.
"It has a terrible reputation in the ad industry, and has faced accusations of idea theft, and shoddy behaviour generally. It's also a phenomenally successful brand and business, and a genuinely incredible success story for British brewing,” says Dan Cullen-Schute, chief executive and founder of Creature London.
But what's happened in the last couple of days is different.
“With the important caveat that 40 disgruntled ex-employees do not always a set of facts make, there's a hefty difference between nicking ideas from a pitch and fostering a culture of fear where employees are chewed up and spat out,” continues Shute. “The former is shitty and frustrating, the latter, ‘high performance culture’ or not, wholly unacceptable.”
Despite that, he admits that it’s unlikely to do the BrewDog brand harm in the long term, a view that’s shared by Kev Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour.
“Will this storm cause it any long-term damage? Probably not. There is something of the Teflon quality to these kind of zealot brands which often mean that the true believers tend to not to care what they do wrong – they’ll forgive them for anything.”
The OnePulse poll seemed to point to this ambivalence among consumers. It found that just 36% of respondents said that they would be no more likely or unlikely to buy its craft beer, with 25% saying they’d still be likely or very likely to purchase and only 18% saying they would be less likely to purchase.
While the Punks With Purpose letter has already achieved its aims of forcing an apology and pledge to improve from the company's founder, that change (if it comes) will be motivated from internal forces within the industry rather than a sudden change in the public’s perception of a brand that has always promoted its own misbehaviour.
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