‘The punk ethos isn’t working anymore’: after BBC doc what should BrewDog do next?
As it faces yet another PR disaster following a BBC documentary exposing workplace practices, BrewDog’s ‘Punks With Purpose’ brand position is quickly losing meaning. Is it time to move on?
The BBC documentary accused BrewDog founder James Watt of inappropriate behavior and abuse of power
The BBC’s damning Disclosure documentary highlighted the alleged inappropriate behavior and abuse of power by founder James Watt.
The brand was faced by claims that BrewDog’s USA workers were given advice on how to avoid unwelcome attention from Watt, who was accused of making female staff feel “uncomfortable” and “powerless.”
The BBC began investigating the Scottish-headquartered brewer last year after almost 300 former and current employees signed a letter acusing Watt of creating “a toxic culture of fear.”
Though he said he “hugely regret[s] anyone feeling in any way uncomfortable around me” and vowed to “learn,” Watt ultimately denied all allegations. He later tweeted that he would take legal action against the BBC “to protect my reputation.”
“The BBC published claims which are totally false and they published them despite the extensive evidence we provided to demonstrate that they were false,” he wrote.
But it’s not just damage to Watt’s reputation that’s been done. According to data from Synthesio, a social measurement firm, in the hours following the documentary’s airing there were 3,700 conversations happing on Twitter relating to the program and 17.2k interactions relating to BrewDog.
The top keyword used in those conversations was “inappropriate behavior,” with more than 200 mentions. Overall, mentions related to the sexual harassment accusations represented a third of the conversations. It also found the emotions in the responses posted were largely “disgust, surprise and anger.” Overall, 35% of mentions were attached to negative sentiment.
From plucky to problematic
The PR, marketing and branding experts The Drum spoke to in the aftermath of the documentary were all in agreement that BrewDog must take the allegations seriously if it is to weather this storm.
Whether or not BrewDog disputes the claims from the many hundreds of current and former staff, it’s clear that there are major cultural issues that need to be addressed.
The resignation of senior leaders embroiled in allegations of misconduct and harassment is not unusual; in fact, it’s usually the first step in attempts to stem the negative coverage following an expose.
“Investor pressure might force [Watt’s exit],” says Tom Harvey, co-founder at YesMore, a branding agency specializing in the drinks sector.
“But even that may not fix things, because if the allegations are true – and a lot of unhappy BrewDog staff feel they are – there’s now a wider culture to unravel. It is hard to see how an IPO at the hoped-for valuation could now happen without very serious change.”
Nick Ellis, creative partner and founder of Halo, believes change at the top could save the company. “The founders love the fame, so now we have a wildly successful brand with a couple of twats running it – who everyone knows, and everyone hates. This means we can go full tilt Willy Wonka and give BrewDog away, to be run by a worthy successor. Someone truly passionate about the brewery, about the staff, [about] punk investors, about the brand. Golden tickets, brewing secrets, fantastical dream-come-true stuff.”
Regardless of whether Watt stays in position, the BrewDog leadership will need to act quickly and decisively. This internal audit might also spark a rethink on the plucky startup mentality that has underpinned its marketing.
Over the years, consumers have bought into its promise to offer something different, and its bolshy ads were the conduit for showing just how anti-establishment it was. You can read a history of the brand’s marketing here but, in short, it was never afraid to be controversial and reveled in public spats with governing bodies and rival brewers and taking politicians to task. It historically relied on outlandish stunts, including serving its ‘Roadkill’ batch from a dead squirrel or sending a person with dwarfism to Downing Street to protest measurement laws.
But somewhere along the line, even before the BBC’s exposing documentary, the tide was beginning to turn against BrewDog. And in the face of the latest bout of allegations, marketers question whether it can continue to pull off the stunts of its youth.
“Its antics walked a line, a line that has shifted seemingly without the knowledge of the founders, the guys who released a Pink IPA for girls to highlight gender pay inequality,” says Joe Wade, founder of Don’t Panic London.
“Aside from the progression of culture, the line has also shifted as the status of BrewDog has changed from plucky upstart to a company that could be worth up to $2bn and employs thousands of people.”
Andrew Bloch, founder of PR group Frank, is no stranger to BrewDog antics. It was on the receiving end of an ultimately fruitless lawsuit issued by Watt after it sent out a press release that invited Trump supporters to drink at the brewer’s bars.
Bloch says the problem now is that for a brand that claims to be a progressive force, it has been accused of dramatically failing in this area.
“This has come at a time when scrutiny over brands’ behavior has never been higher. It has become caught between being a disruptive challenger brand and a modern progressive and purposeful employer. Its ‘punk’ ethos is no longer effective now BrewDog is very much part of the mainstream establishment.”
Can it fix this?
So what does BrewDog do now? It could try and ride it out. It wouldn’t be the first brand to face what – on the surface – seems like insurmountable problems to bounce back stronger.
“If Facebook is anything to go by, the correlation between reputational damage and share price is a difficult one to demonstrate,” says Don’t Panic’s Wade. “Unilever is one of the world’s biggest advertisers, and along with some other big spenders boycotted the platform in 2020 as part of the Stop Funding Hate campaign. The share price dipped by 2.8% before rebounding strongly. Currently, there’s no sign BrewDog is being affected either, with the brewer posting a 10% increase in revenue in 2020.
“But other brands with errant or even abusive founders have floundered, like Blackberry or American Apparel, meaning it might be a question of how and when. And BrewDog simply hasn’t had its day yet.”
If any other brand was facing these issues, the simple answer from a marketing point of view would be to demonstrate integrity in the future.
“The trouble is, BrewDog has been positioning itself that way to date – seemingly dishonestly,” says YesMore’s Harvey.
“And marketing alone won’t fix the problems that have been uncovered. It is going to need a systemic fix – and then to start being honest about what has been and will be done. People – including the staff – clearly love what BrewDog stands for and believe it can still survive. It just has to change. What the brand does is now very tied to how BrewDog is funded. From a brand direction point of view, if private equity wasn’t involved, the answer might be to put more control back in the Equity Punks’ hands and ask them what they want to see next. But the private equity investment makes this harder. The people who supported BrewDog the most – the fans – now have the most to lose.”