Molly Fleming: BrewDog should keep the shock tactics but make sure they line up with its brand

Shock tactics can work but BrewDog’s failure proves that you should steer clear of societal issues unless they fit with your brand’s positioning.

BrewDog has made a name for itself by launching irreverent marketing campaigns that garner headlines and attention. From its campaign taking on traditional competitors Carling, Stella Artois and Budweiser to the launch of its Dead Pony Club IPA, it isn’t one to stand away from a controversy or too.

In fact, co-founder James Watt has been open about his desire to “break free from the mundane, risk-averse, colourless templates” taught at business school . He wants to build a brand that fights back against “conformity and compliance”.

But even a brand like BrewDog has its limits. In a private blog to investors, Watts admits that the company has on occasion over the past year got it wrong. He admits some launches have been “ill-advised” and that the company has too often used shock tactics for the sake of it.

It’s not hard to think of the example he might be talking about. Who can forget how BrewDog honoured International Women’s Day by proudly emailing media outlets with the launch of “beer for girls” – its classic IPA but in pink. The campaign was meant to be ironic and came with a pledge to sell the beer for 20% cheaper in its bars to those who identify as women to highlight the gender pay gap.

But unsurprisingly it backfired. Irony doesn’t always come across well online! And critics focused on the ridiculous packaging rather than the price difference. BrewDog had reinforced rather than challenged stereotypes forgetting that people would see the campaign first before reading the small print. Also, if you have to explain the joke, it probably isn’t a very good one.

And then last month the brand proved it hadn’t learnt its lesson by launching a parody porn site to coincide with its new streaming service. Beer.porn featured short videos and clips, with one subtly titled “Master nut eater proves he can fit them all in his mouth”.

Again, it received intense backlash and the site was taken down within 24 hours. It appears that the company doesn’t believe in the old saying that ‘third time’s a charm’ and thankfully won’t be tackling social issues again.

However, the brewer’s mistake wasn’t in highlighting injustices or even shocking consumers but in trying to shoehorn the issues in. Its obnoxious campaigns lacked any nuance and so instead came off as what they were, marketing stunts.

Consumers are calling out for brands with purpose but with the caveat that it must be authentic. This means that shock tactics can work well but you have to do it right.

Take Nike’s latest advertisement starring NFL player Colin Kaepernick. The athlete’s peaceful protest has split America as did Nike’s campaign to back him.

Like Brewdog, it went viral with thousands of people tweeting abuse at the sports brand and vowing to never buy its products again. However, there were also thousands celebrating the new ad. People were delighted and proud to see a brand get behind a movement with one actress even donning a Nike jumper for the Emmys.

Nike might have alienated white consumers, especially older ones, but it has engendered loyalty in young black and Asian people that might last a lifetime. It recognised that consumers, especially younger ones, want to be inspired rather than angered and did so without appearing to shamelessly promote itself.

Nike could do this because it has built a reputation around challenging stereotypes and shining the spotlight on prominent sports stars like Kaepernick, as well as Serena Williams.

You only have to utter the word Pepsi for people to remember why authentic purpose is so important. The drink’s infamous Kendall Jenner ad was ridiculed across the world for jumping on the bandwagon. It borrowed images from the Black Lives Matters movement while featuring an unconnected reality TV star and is now synonymous with failed attempt at socially conscious advertising. Apart from a lack of purpose the campaign was also centered around the product rather than the issue at hand.

What these examples teach us is that shock tactics can work but even they need to be well thought through and hark back to a brand’s positioning. BrewDog had never spoken about women’s rights before and so when it launched a pink beer people assumed the worst. Going on to launch a parody porn site hardly paints it as a shining light in this area either.

BrewDog doesn’t need to stop the shock tactics, but it does need to stop strong-arming social issues in where they don’t fit and instead think about how they fit with its wider positioning, to sell great craft beer! If it does want to tackle social issues, it can build an authentic purpose and use its brands to drive that change. But I think they’ll be sticking to beer.

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