BrewDog’s World Cup ‘anti-sponsorship’ is a shameless PR stunt. And it’s a good one
As BrewDog’s new World Cup “anti-sponsorship” attracts praise and condemnation from across the marketing world, High Flyers PR Course co-founder Alex Wilson says critics are forgetting how ordinary people experience promotional stunts.
The BrewDog billboards have caused a stir
The start of the Fifa World Cup in Qatar is less than two weeks away. Yet, whether you’re a grandstanding TV pundit, a corrupt governing body or a host nation spending billions on a tournament that’s made you globally famous for brutal human rights abuses, the 2022 World Cup continues to bruise the reputations of anyone getting too close.
As the flames of Fifa’s decade-long binfire grow ever higher, beer manufacturer BrewDog has declared itself the “proud anti-sponsor” of the tournament, with a series of billboards protesting Qatar’s human rights record. BrewDog also plans to donate all profits made from its Lost Lager during the tournament to human rights charities. However, the company’s bars will continue to screen World Cup matches.
Given BrewDog’s long history of provocative posturing and its recent reputational slip-ups, it’s no surprise that their latest campaign has stirred up the sort of frenzied armchair debate normally reserved for analyzing Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive record.
For those dismissing the campaign, most of the criticism focuses on two questions. The first and most difficult to answer is: given that BrewDog’s bars will still be showing games despite its strongly anti-Qatar stance, doesn’t the campaign collapse under its own hypocrisy?
I would argue not. The reality is that a boycott would benefit no one. Fans would simply choose a different pub, staff would miss out on extra shifts and BrewDog would be missing out on revenue during a tough winter for no real benefit.
Instead, by showing the games and making donations to relevant charities, the brand is able to provide a platform to criticize Qatar while raising money for needy causes. It might be a less morally satisfying stance, but it’s also a less futile one.
BrewDog’s critics would rightly point out that it’s only the profits from Lost Lager that are going to charity, not the profits of their bars as a whole. And it’s perhaps true that, given the large sums of money the company is likely spending on media to promote the campaign, BrewDog would rather no one looked too closely at the exact sums that will be going to charity.
But the fact is that some money going to charity does more good than no money going to charity, which is why BrewDog’s philosophically untidy approach is preferable to a boycott.
The second question is: will the campaign actually benefit the brand at all?
I think this is much easier to answer. Marketing professor Mark Ritson has compellingly argued that, given what we now know from the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute about the importance of salience and distinctive brand assets, marketers too often overestimate the impact of reputational crises and a brand’s ethical stances.
However you might like consumers to behave, it’s hard to reconcile complaints about BrewDog’s ‘toxic’ culture and the dramatic BBC documentary accusing CEO James Watt of improper behavior with the brand’s seemingly unstoppable sales growth. While these accusations might make it more difficult for BrewDog to hire staff, and will likely create difficulties with the company’s various stakeholders, the brutal truth is that its customers don’t seem to care.
Unlike a lot of well-meaning but limp ‘purpose-based’ campaigns, BrewDog’s ‘anti-sponsorship’ has given them the platform to create punchy and noticeable work. Importantly, it’s also allowed the brand to take a bold stance on an issue that has broad agreement across political and culture war divides. BrewDog’s ads might not be the neatest fit with its decision to keep showing the tournament, but they are head-turning – and from a commercial perspective, that’s what really matters.
The art direction of the ads is simple and product-focused, but the copy is where it really shines, mimicking the sort of derisive humor you’d hear from your local pub’s resident cynic. Crucially, the quality of the work elevates the campaign above BrewDog’s shonkier recent stunts, such as its questionable decision to release a novelty beer supporting war-torn Ukraine.
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And it’s important to remember that while marketing professionals work themselves into a frenzy about BrewDog’s supposedly skin-deep commitment to the cause, the brand has long since pivoted away from its original audience of highly-interested beer connoisseurs, and is now targeting a more mainstream audience of occasional beer drinkers.
This casual audience isn’t likely to see BrewDog’s World Cup adverts and undertake a bout of earnest reflection about whether the brand is truly living up to its ‘punk’ values. But they are likely to notice the stories about the attention-grabbing ads, make a quick grunt of approval, and then go about their day with little conscious thought about the beer, but with their memory structures newly refreshed.
The marketing and communications industry’s obsession with ‘purpose’ can have real benefits for society, but it all too often blinds us to what we’re supposed to be doing: promoting our clients.
Yes, it’s true that BrewDog’s ‘anti-sponsorship of the World Cup’ is an opportunistic and superficial stunt designed to grab attention in a transparent attempt to promote BrewDog and make the company more money.
But why does everyone say that like it’s a bad thing?
Alex Wilson is the co-founder of the High Flyers PR Course, an online course reinventing PR training for the remote-working world. Find out more here.