Are BrewDog ‘beerwashing’?

This week, BrewDog launched their ‘anti-sponsor‘ marketing campaign, which aims to highlight the human rights abuses in the 2022 FIFA World Cup host nation, Qatar. On the surface, this seems like an admirable stance from a purpose-driven company … but there has been huge pushback. Why?

To begin, it’s worth being clear on some of the recent history:
June 2021 :: ‘Punks With Purpose‘ published an open letter to BrewDog, highlighting what they called “toxic workplace culture” at the company.
January 2022 :: BBC Disclosure documentary paints a disturbing picture of the company. [This documentary was later updated – some of the accusations were removed].
March 2022 :: BrewDog purchase their ‘Lost Forest‘ in Scotland, a rewilding project launched with extravagant claims … that were quickly shown to be misleading.
May 2022 :: CEO James Watt announces plans to give away 20% of his stake in the company to staff. This is likely worth about £100m.
September 2022 :: Watt wins a court case against Emili Ziem, who was found guilty of fraudulent claims against Watt.
November 2022 :: BrewDog’s ‘anti-sponsor’ campaign gets a decidedly mixed reaction.

There’s plenty more, including various run-ins with advertising standards, and regular criticism of their overall marketing tactics. One thing is clear: BrewDog know how to get attention.

But – are they actually as purpose-driven as they claim, or is it all just “beerwashing”? On the surface they seem to be doing many good things – why then are so many people ‘anti-BrewDog’?

There’s a point at which taking a stand will always put you in the firing line – you can never please everyone. Even a company like Patagonia – universally regarded as the paragon of purpose-driven companies – still gets negative feedback. “Businesses should stay out of politics.” “Making coats out of plastic isn’t environmentally friendly.” “But Yvon Chouinard is a billiona- … oh.” Some of the resistance to BrewDog is in the same vein: it’s an inevitable part of publicly taking a position on a controversial subject.

Some of it is also to do with the way current media models – particularly social media – are based on an ‘engagement through enragement‘ model. As an example, The Guardian have unflattering reports on the ‘Lost Forest’, and the accusations of toxic culture – but no mention of the court win that perhaps paints Watt in a different light. But BrewDog are far from innocent victims here. They fully understand the value of controversy on social media: all that attention – good or bad – increases brand awareness.

There’s also something about the way BrewDog go about their business that riles people up. They deliberately have a brash, ‘punk’ company voice, which gets replaced with an aggressively defensive tone when they get it wrong. Although they do it frequently [which says something in itself], BrewDog aren’t very good at apologising.

If it’s genuine – if BrewDog truly believe in the things they say they believe in, then they’re going about it in a clumsy, heavy-handed manner. To take the current ‘anti-sponsor’ campaign as an example. The ads take a bold stance on calling out human rights abuses in Qatar, and say profits from the sale of ‘Lost Lager’ will be donated to [currently unspecified] human rights charities – ok, great … yet BrewDog will still be showing the games in their bars. The explanation is [a] that they want to call out the organisers, not punish the fans, and [b] this will help sell more beer, resulting in a bigger donation. The reasoning here is debatable but perhaps understandable. Then we find out they recently signed a distribution deal, which sees their beer being sold across Qatar. The justification this time is that it’s via a third party so it’s not really us doing it, and anyway, no one criticises Apple for selling iPhones in Qatar. The problem here is that Apple aren’t also basing their entire advertising campaign around calling out Qatar. Another twist is that following the initial pushback, BrewDog then announce that all [post-tax] revenue from Lost Lager [not just profit] will be donated to human rights charities – which comes across as reactive; they didn’t think it all through in the first place, and don’t seem to have the courage of their initial convictions.

Fundamentally, it comes down to trust. More and more people expect companies to be taking responsibility beyond just making money. We want businesses to also be thinking and talking about the social and environmental impacts they are having. But when we feel that a company is repeatedly lying to us, saying one thing and doing another, that trust abruptly evaporates. We are left feeling hurt and angry – even by a brewery.

There are lessons here for any business looking to become more purpose-driven:
1 :: Have your own house in order.
If your internal culture sucks, if your team have some inappropriate behaviours, then you have to fix that privately before you can be taken seriously in public.
2 :: Get alignment across the organisation.
Everyone needs to be on the same page to avoid things like the distribution issue at BrewDog. Do we clearly understand our values, and when to speak out?
3 :: Don’t make it about you.
Think about your tone of voice – there’s a balance to be found between boldness and humility. Whatever happens, keep the focus on the cause, not your company.
4 :: Expect to upset people.
Everyone knows we can’t please all the people all the time, so don’t try. Some people will disagree with you – and that’s OK. When they do, you need to hold firm.
5 :: When you get it wrong [and you will], apologise.
And do it properly – don’t whinge, and try to blame someone else. “I’m sorry but -” is not an apology.

So – are BrewDog “beerwashing”? At this point, I’m just about prepared to continue giving them the benefit of the doubt – while hoping that they are learning some lessons. The alternative is that it’s all an intentional attempt to deceive people [us], and I simply don’t think that’s very likely. The truth probably lies somewhere between the polarising views that BrewDog are either a paragon of virtue or deliberately malicious. They’re a bit of both.

Perhaps the biggest mistake BrewDog have made is making it all about them. The vast majority of the coverage – including this post – is about BrewDog. No one is actually talking about human rights abuses in Qatar, which was meant to be the focus of the campaign.

Above all, I hope this story doesn’t stop organisations from standing up for the issues they care about. BrewDog are making a mess of it, but we mustn’t let that put the rest of us off.

Watch. Learn. And then do it better.


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