Building a good reputation from scratch is hard. Any episode of Dragon’s Den will illustrate how identifying and publicizing a USP to the correct audience is a challenge. What’s much harder is rebuilding a tarnished reputation.
Celebrating 15 years in business, Brewdog have grown their brand on provocative marketing driven by an ‘all publicity is good publicity’ mantra. But at the core were strong morals, they proudly demonstrated their care for their staff and planet with the whole supply chain carbon neutral and offering extra discounts on vegan food in their bars. They offered their bars to the government as COVID vaccination centres and often brew special edition beers to raise awareness for social causes.
It’s easy to get absorbed in that whirlwind. I did, as an owner of 2 shares, I am a proud Punk with equity. Or was…
In spring 2021, the craft beer community started hearing rumblings of a cult of personality around the co-founders, who faced accusations of harbouring a toxic work environment. This particularly came to the public’s attention following a documentary by BBC’s investigative series, Disclosure, in January 2022. The high Brewdog was riding, crashed down. Critics allegedly exposed them as hypocrites. Brewdog’s entire USP was brought in for question. Of course, this is a large hurdle to climb over. How do they recover?
In the face of tough criticism, the first step is to repent; Show remorse. CEO James Watt threatening to sue the BBC over the claims made in the Disclosure documentary certainly wasn’t the best decision and multiple reports of staff intimidation over their potential contributions to the documentary would only compound the problem. Clearly this was a more emotional response, as expected when your world is on the verge of crashing down on you. Importantly, it certainly attracted further negative press.
A potential legal battle with the BBC would have been unlikely to end well. It would be costly both financially and reputationally, bringing greater media attention to an issue they should want to leave in the past. As the news covers the case, people would likely remember the accusations more than the verdict. Of course, the first rule is there are always exceptions to the rule and in many cases, there may be a need to take a stand to fight potential misleading claims or false accusations. The high-profile Depp v Heard trial demonstrates this; one can argue that Johnny Depp came out with a lot more public support than he went into the trial with.
Deciding when to take this stand is difficult, but in Brewdog’s case the steps they have since taken in backing down from legal claims were the right choice. In an environment where corporate culture is ever being scrutinised and against accusations of an alleged toxic work environments, a sharp crackdown may not result in the best optics.
Previously Watt had a good track record of owning up to mistakes. A prolific user of LinkedIn, he is part of the new cohort of young CEOs, that include Gymshark’s Ben Francis and ‘Diary of a CEO’ host Steven Bartlett, that engage on social channels and have built personal brands as innovators. Watt has written several blogs owning up to mistakes and how he’s learnt from them, a personal touch that often goes down well.
After remorse, comes action. The apology can’t be seen to be empty words. Particularly when that’s the accusation.
The Brewdog Blueprint was launched back in May with a number of initiatives aimed at fighting back against these allegations. These included a profit share and employee ownership scheme and a new public transparency dashboard. Strong ideas with a focus on keeping employees engaged and management in check, as well as an alumni club, seemingly an apology gift to those felt forced out the company. On the surface, exactly what should be done, and in Brewdog fashion it was well publicised in line with the 15th Anniversary campaign.
Finally in the words of their latest campaign, how to be famous for your future, not your past. Brewdog’s history can’t be the selling point it used to be and to that end a creative marketing agency has been given the job to construct a whole messaging rebrand acknowledging they are no longer the underdogs.
Brewdog’s meteoric rise has clearly come with growing pains. With a successful repositioning under their belt, it’s clear the company’s leadership have seen the need to turn from a market challenger to a market leader. The coverage they’ve received so far has been overwhelmingly positive with job applications for Brewdog bars growing by 75%. Overall, finances haven’t been hit either Revenue grew by 21% as Brand Finance ranks Brewdog as the 14th most valuable beer brand globally, overtaking Carlsberg.
Mistakes were made in how this situation was handled, that’s for sure. However, for the meantime, it looks like Brewdog have survived this blip, even if slightly bruised.
The company known for marketing masterclasses continues to be a great case study, even if they may not be too great in crisis. Initial emotional responses may have tarnished what has otherwise been a solid attempt at responding to critics, but this shows the importance of having a PR counsel you can reach out to.
The underdog has become the top dog, for now. With this growth comes the need for an air of professionalism and a new level of corporate responsibility.