BrewDog needs to be honest with itself about its ‘honest’ new ad

The craft beer brand’s “most honest ad ever” is nothing of the sort and is instead a sign that this “anti-mainstream” brewer has realised that the big brand advertising is crucial to raising awareness and boosting growth.

BrewDog has boldly gone where no brand has gone before. It has, in its own words, ditched the mainstream, embraced the alternative and drawn a line in the sand. It has done what it has always done: the exact opposite of what convention and rules expect.

It’s only gone and launched the most honest ad you will ever see. Ever. Fact.

That must be true because BrewDog said so no less than four times in the press release that accompanied the campaign launch. And they definitely wouldn’t have put the subject line in capital letters if it genuinely wasn’t ‘THE MOST HONEST AD EVER’. Everyone knows capital letters mean business.

According to the press release, it is a message to people’s “growing cynicism” towards advertising, where brands make “outrageous promises to win your attention”. Especially within the beer category, which is filled with “lame jokes, generic casting and bullshit social scenarios”. (Obviously three things BrewDog is completely above and could never be accused of doing itself because it’s PUNK AF.)

But this, co-founder James Watt says, is what a BrewDog TV ad looks like. The word advert with a backing track. And you’d have thought the clue was in the name but BrewDog has somehow managed to not use a punk band to promote its Punk IPA.

OK. I know BrewDog fancies itself as a bit of a rebel, but despite what BrewDog says this is an ad campaign. And not only is it an ad campaign it’s a high-profile ad campaign with the singular aim of raising awareness of craft beer generally and BrewDog specifically. This is because, as BrewDog points out, craft beer’s penetration is just 14% among UK adults. If BrewDog wants to continue to grow that level needs to rise.

Here’s the thing: BrewDog’s simple and “honest” ad may have saved it a few pounds on creative and production costs, which I guess is why it thinks it’s been clever here, but at its heart it’s a standard brand marketing campaign.

The creative is designed to catch attention and get people talking. The media buy to ensure reach.

And that media buy must have been quite something. BrewDog may have saved money in some areas but it has spent money on one of the most expensive media slots in TV, launching the campaign during this week’s Game of Thrones ad break. Meanwhile, posters are running on the sides of buses across London and Manchester.

That shows BrewDog knows how important and effective advertising is when it comes to building a brand and scaling up.

Pointing out the advert is an advert doesn’t make it the “most honest ad ever”, nor is it risky, against convention or brave. It’s just an advert trying to do what ads are designed to do with some good old PR fluff behind it.

It feels like BrewDog is desperately trying to hold on to its disruptive challenger status while also trying to become a mainstream global brand.

This also isn’t a strategy that was hatched down the pub and sketched out on the back of a beer mat. BrewDog has enlisted the help of creative heavyweights, in the form of agency Uncommon, to come up with this creative. Whether the ad is a static image of beer and text on a blank screen or a 60-second blockbuster, that creative insight and strategy doesn’t come cheap.

Back in 2013, Watt said he would “rather take my money and set fire to it” than spend it on advertising, adding: “It’s the antithesis of everything we stand for and everything we believe in. It’s a medium that is shallow, it’s fake and we want nothing to do with it.”

Yet times change. Fast-forward six years and BrewDog clearly sees that marketing is worth investing in. And it is prepared to pay for it, both in terms of creative agency fees and media spend.

It feels like BrewDog is desperately trying to hold on to its disruptive, challenger status while also trying to become a mainstream global brand as it prepares for an IPO next year. It still sees itself as the Sex Pistols of beer, when in reality it’s now about as punk as Green Day when the band released American Idiot in 2004.

It’s fine that BrewDog wants to be seen to be doing things a bit differently and against the ‘norm’, and its ‘disruptive’ marketing has no doubt played a part in getting the brand to where it is today. But it also needs to realise it is no longer that same small Scottish-based brewer that began life in Aberdeen back in 2007.

BrewDog is currently the best-selling craft beer in the UK with 70 bars and more than 1,000 employees all over the world. In 2017, a decade after it launched, it made a pre-tax profit of £1.4m on revenue of £111.6m, and sold a 22% stake of the business to a private equity firm for approximately £213m.

That same year, in a move that goes against everything it claims to stand for, it threatened legal action against a small independent pub in Birmingham called Lone Wolf (a trademark owned by BrewDog) as well as against another bar for using ‘punk’ in its name. Not exactly very punk, punk.

Some alleged recent behaviour has also been decidedly unpunk. There are accusations that the idea for its new ‘Punk AF’ alcohol-free beer was used without crediting or paying the agency that came up with the concept (after BrewDog rejected the original idea which was done under the agency retainer).

It has also been accused of asking clients to pitch ideas, declining them and then taking ideas from competing agencies, as well as failing to reimburse prospective employees for travel.

On its quest to become the best craft beer in the world, BrewDog has had to make some sacrifices along the way and will continue to do so. And that’s fine; such is the nature of building a global brand.

But if this ‘honest’ ad has taught us one thing, it’s that BrewDog isn’t anti-advertising or anti-convention. And that even most challenger brands will eventually have to adopt big brand advertising if they want to continue to grow.

Perhaps BrewDog needs to be a bit more honest with itself and realise it’s no longer Punk AF, but on the side of a bus on the road to becoming mainstream AF. And that’s no bad thing.