For better or worse, and whether you’re a beer drinker or not, chances are you’ve heard of BrewDog.
Styling themselves as being fiercely independent, and the antithesis to an industry that is anything but, the brand was established in 2007 and now brews more than 220,000 hectolitres of beer every year (trust us, that’s a lot!).
The business is an undeniable success, but there have been more than a couple of growing pains along the way, including some notable PR flashpoints that have impacted its carefully curated reputation.
The biggest PR storm to face BrewDog in its history was the publication of an open letter, co-signed by several former employees, as well as carrying the names of many who wished to not be formally named.
The letter, which was picked up by several national newspapers and discussed widely across social media, provided a damning verdict of life at BrewDog, including swipes at alleged hypocricies and contradictions that made a mockery of their ethical positioning.
The authors of the letter accused the business of pedalling a culture of fear and displaying a toxic attittude to junior members of staff.
They also accused co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie of exploiting negative publicity to their own ends, and of merely paying lip service to their publicly held beliefs around carbon neutrality.
The owners chose to respond to the letter and in it issued a formal apology, promising to “listen, learn and act”.
In not choosing to challenge the varying allegations made, Watt and Dickie succeeded in controlling the fire. This was undoubtedly the best response, but it didn’t undo the damage.
David turned Goliath
Unfortunately, June’s open letter wasn’t the first instance of negative PR experienced by the brand on a grand scale.
In 2017, BrewDog hit the headlines after threatening to sue a family-run pub for daring to use the word ‘punk’ in the establishment’s name.
A Leeds-based music promoter had made plans to open a bar called ‘Draft Punk’, which BrewDog claimed infringed their intellectual rights as owners of the “punk” trademark in relation to beer.
Their lawyers said that use of the term would likely creation confusion among consumers.
This was a massive PR blunder for a business styled as being representative of the aficionado standing up to the corporate machine.
Here, BrewDog had switched roles – and Goliath was going after David.
It followed similar action threatened against a pub – named “Lone Wolf” – which saw BrewDog accused of being “just another multinational corporate machine”.
The Leeds-based producer would ultimately abandon his plans, while the pub was forced to change its name.
BrewDog may have got what they wanted, but the ‘win’ came at a massive PR cost.
Not all that glitters is gold
Even more recently than the open letter, BrewDog has found itself in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Weeks after the letter was published, the firm was again being talked about for the wrong reasons when a competition winner accused them of breaking their promises and misleading customers.
Northern Irishman Mark Craig had won what BrewDog had described in promotional materials as a solid gold can – but he would later discover that it was just gold-plated.
The advertised value of £15,000 also turned out to be inaccurate, leading Mark to get the papers involved.
The story was carried across national media and discussed across social channels, with many observers slamming BrewDog’s uncaring attitude in dealing with the complaint.
The business claimed it had made an error in its advertising, and apologised to the winner, but did themselves no favours by defending that their £15k valuation on the basis of the can’s rarity – and not the materials it’s made from. This was not a good response.
The episode led to an investigation from a consumer watchdog and struck another blow to the brand’s reputation.
As a business that owes much of its growth to crowdfunding – founders Watt and Dickie own just 46% between them – it’s even more surprisining that BrewDog has left itself so badly exposed.
Beyond just customers, many of those damged perceptions could be shareholders’ – and hobbyists in an industry that is booming with genuine, start-up firms that have wholesome stories to tell.
A recent TV advertising campaign has doubled-down on BrewDog’s ethical worldview, telling people it wants to “Make Earth Great Again” through its green credentials.
But as the company’s corporate footprint grows, and as it becomes a more prominent mainstay on the shelves of major supermarkets, does it have any hope of retaining its identity as the underdog in a multi-billion-pound industry?
Not if you read the papers.