Two parts Irreverent Maverick to one part Feisty Underdog,
BrewDog combines outlandish and headline-grabbing ideas with
fiercely inventive solutions to business constraints that might have
tripped up the less determined. Passionate beer geeks at heart,
the brand takes delight in poking fun at its mainstream beer rivals,
all in the service of ‘making people as passionate about great craft
beer as we are’.
Still gleefully irreverent, BrewDog is now sold in 60 countries,
and the acquisition by TSG of a 23% stake in 2017 valued the
company at £1bn. We met co-founder and ‘Captain’ James Watt
and Global Head of Marketing Sophie More to understand what
it takes to live as an Irreverent Maverick, inside and out.
You’ve become known for being irreverent and provocative
about beer and the big brewers and brands. How did that start?
And how would you characterise what you’ve been trying to do
as a challenger?
JAMES: BrewDog was born out of a frustration with the tired beer
scene in the UK, and the monopoly of big breweries and their fizzy
yellow lager. Since our inception, we have naturally challenged the
status quo. We have always taken a stand against everything big
breweries represent – faceless corporations that put profit over
integrity, with a mentality of ‘stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.
We wanted to offer the antithesis to this – a brewery driven by
passion and soul that puts beer at the heart of everything we do.
SOPHIE: From the very beginning, it was all about a mission
to create awesome craft beer and overthrow industrialised lager.
It wasn’t about building a business. It was about starting a rebellion,
creating a revolution and getting people to join that crusade. It was
very much a movement rather than just the creation of a company.
Has it worked? How has that irreverent nature benefited the business?
SOPHIE: I think it has really helped us challenge people’s perceptions
of beer. We brewed a 55% ABV beer called The End of History, and that
definitely got people thinking about beer in a different way.
JAMES: Through our punk mindset, we have built a global community
of people who share our frustrations and our passions. It was that
community of punks that turned us into the brewery we are today.
Together, they have helped us to build the craft beer revolution,
and they’ve also invested more than £67m in us, proving they
have as much belief in our mission as we do.
What’s the most powerful example of BrewDog’s irreverent nature
JAMES: There have been so many over the years, but one that we
still love is our reaction to the Portman Group’s ruling that some text
on our bottles of Dead Pony Club breached alcohol marketing rules.
We issued a formal apology for not giving a shit about this ruling
or anything that the Portman Group had to say, describing them
as a ‘gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing
international drinks giants.’
We don’t take direction from a toothless organisation fuelled
by the big breweries that are threatened by the power of the
craft beer revolution and its community. It definitely felt good.
SOPHIE: One of the earliest and most well known was when BrewDog
was refused funding from various banks, and so James and Martin
Dickie (BrewDog’s founders) decided to launch a crowd-funding
platform called Equity for Punks. In order to announce that, they hired
a tank for £400, drove it around the City of London past all the banks
that refused to give them money, and did that as a way to launch
What is the criteria for a great BrewDog idea or activation?
How do you know whether to press the button or not?
SOPHIE: It always goes back to the mission, which is to make other
people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. There’s no point
in making noise for the sake of it. We have to be making noise to bring
attention to our beer.
JAMES: We have a simple two-part test at BrewDog: 1. Could any other
brewery do this? And 2. Is it completely aligned to our core mission?
As long as no other brewery would go near an idea, and it completely
aligns with our ambition to make other people as passionate about
great craft beer as we are, then we’re all in.
BrewDog is famed for its high-risk PR stunts, yet you’ve built a huge
amount of integrity and credibility as a respected beer brand through
other aspects of your marketing. How do you operate successfully
on both those fronts? Is this aspect key for Irreverent Maverick
challengers like BrewDog?
SOPHIE: The reason we can do those risky PR stunts is because of the
quality, care and craftsmanship that goes into our beer. So, we’ve got
real credibility within the craft beer community. A big part of what we
do with our beer is collaborating with smaller, independent breweries.
We have a festival every October that we’ve run for the last eight
years called Collabfest, where each of our bars partners up with a local
brewery and they produce a beer together. Ultimately, the big boys
of bland corporate beer are our common enemy. You can look at other
industries where there’s a lot of competition and consumers can see
through that. Being inclusive and collaborative as a brand means it’s
easier for consumers to trust us.
BrewDog is remarkable for consistently making headlines. How do
you ensure BrewDog is always in the news? And how spontaneous
is this really?
JAMES: We’re probably a lot more spontaneous than people think – we
come up with ideas and work very quickly to implement them. We can
also credibly get involved in a wide range of conversations and stand
up against anything or anyone who contradicts the values we adhere
to – inclusivity, collaboration, independence and passion.
Dwelling on an idea for too long isn’t really our style, and if it’s an
awesome idea, it’s better to run with it or you’ll soon see someone
else get there before you. Shoot first, aim later.
How does this irreverence change the way you make marketing
plans and key budget decisions?
SOPHIE: Everything has to be a game-changer and for any target
that we’ve set ourselves we think, ‘How do we double that? How
do we triple that?’
The global market leader is 2,500 times our size, and has much
bigger spending power and bigger resources behind it. So, we know
that to overthrow the big businesses that we’re up against we have
to do things on a much bigger scale. We talk about blowing shit up
all the time.
JAMES: The budget is relatively flexible – if the concept is incredible,
we will back it wholeheartedly. But we have maintained the same
attitude towards marketing as we had in 2007 – we would rather
inspire people with a clever, eclectic concept that’s massively
shareable than invest heavily in an over-the-top TV campaign
that’ll be forgotten by the time Bake Off comes back on.
How does it change the way you think about media, and what
is media for a brand like BrewDog?
JAMES: It’s really the hundreds of thousands of people who engage
with us on social media that are our driving force. One of the great
things about the rise of social media was being able to have a
conversation with our audience – to learn in real time what they love,
what they don’t love, and how we can build a better business together.
We’ve always maintained a strong dialogue with our customers
and our fans on social media, and this has enabled us to tap into
their ideas as well as their feedback incredibly quickly. PR has also
been imperative to our success and we’ve consistently worked to
make beer worth talking about.
Creating something worth writing about is a million times more
impactful than paying for a single page of advertising. Where we
have invested in paid placements, we’ve been careful to ensure
the content is still worth talking about.
SOPHIE: In the beginning, it was just being as loud and noisy as
possible and getting people talking about us. And in doing so, we
managed to build a community. We now want to continue to do that,
but in a way that furthers our mission and brings more people into
So we are trying to be more open and inclusive and to say to people
that are mainstream or lager drinkers, ‘Come and try craft beer.’ We
are using lots of different media types, whereas before it was mostly
about PR, word of mouth and stunt-led activity.
How does that irreverent nature play out in the company culture?
JAMES: One of the key drivers of our growth has been our awesome
global team of beer geeks. Finding those craft beer superstars has
been paramount to our success. We want to be the world’s greatest
employer and we have a number of staff benefits to ensure our team
stays happy, such as amazing training like our Cicerone programme,
and sharing 10% of profits with our team every single year.
SOPHIE: Our brewery and HQ is in northeast Scotland, and is the
hub of what we do. We keep that. We fiercely protect that. The minute
we start acting and thinking like a big company, we’ll lose everything
that makes us special.
Our external marketing is hugely fuelled by our internal culture.
We are all ultimate beer geeks working at BrewDog, and that
passion fuels the way that we’re seen externally.