The key to success? Embrace financial constraints

For all its problems, my time at Brewdog taught me one very valuable lesson – answer your own question: “This will only work if…” It could very well change the way you look at budget constraints.

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I interviewed Fernando Machado, the former CMO of Burger King, for my Uncensored CMO podcast earlier this year. Machado famously ran the ‘Mouldy Whopper’ campaign as well as many other standouts.

I asked him whether he considered such campaigns a risky move. His answer was very revealing. When you have 25% of the budget of your main competitor you have no choice than to be much more creative, he told me. In fact he went further to say that if the majority of campaigns have no impact, taking a risk is really no risk at all.

Relative to competitors in the category, he was facing budget constraints. The reality is most marketers in most categories are are operating with far less resource than they would like.

What to do when you have no budget

This was absolutely the case at Brewdog, where I had a rather short-lived tenure as its CMO.

For all the highs and undoubted lows in Brewdog’s journey to date, it’s hard to argue that the business hasn’t been incredibly successful at challenging the mainstream beer industry. It has taken on an extremely well funded industry with a stronghold of distribution and brands with equity built up over decades. And it has done that with very little budget.

By continually challenging teams to embrace the business constraints he not only created more ambitious ideas but found ways to execute them faster.

I got to experience the business up close and personal and there was one thing that really struck me. James Watt, one of the co-founders, always asked the same question: “This will only work if…?”.

Less a question, more often a statement he made that he then answered himself, but you get the idea. It’s what Adam Morgan would call a “propelling question” in his book A Beautiful Constraint. James used it to devastating effect.

By continually challenging teams to embrace the business constraints he not only created more ambitious ideas but found ways to execute them faster and more successfully than the competition could ever do.

This only works if we can fund our business without being dependent on banks

Take the initial funding for the business. When they got turned down for a bank loan they decided to give equity away to their loyal drinkers in return for cash. “Equity for punks” launched back in 2007 before crowdfunding had become widespread and went on to be the most successful crowd fund of all time. The majority of the business growth from that point has been funded through successive rounds.

This only works if our product can become headline news

What do you do when you launch a new beer and have no money to promote it? You create a beer so strong it sets the record for being the world’s strongest. Or you name one of your beers Elvis, one of the most famous musicians in history, and then use the following lawsuit to amplify that fame even to the extent of changing your own name to Elvis. Almost every new beer launch is a statement designed to create headlines.

This only works if everything we do creates fame

It would be easy to focus this question on things like product launches but what if even the most mundane parts of your business created fame? The statutory AGM was renamed “Annual General Mayhem” and can more accurately be described as a beer festival meets rock concert than a traditional AGM. Even something as every day as employee perks can make headlines. Brewdog decided to introduce ‘pawternity’ leave for any employee adopting a new pet at home. Even the most basic policies create headlines.

This only works if we prove our biggest critics wrong

You can even see this happening during moments of crisis. I am sure everyone reading this will remember the former employee letter about Brewdog’s culture that made headlines and the subsequent BBC investigation. You can only imagine the reaction inside Brewdog. But it was actually very predictable. What if Brewdog could make The Sunday Times’ Best Place to Work list? Which it did earlier this year. Tou judge whether such lists are worthwhile but the fact is Brewdog made it on there.

BrewDog’s former marketing boss: It wasn’t ready for a CMOI was inspired by Watt to write my own ‘what if’ presentation. Unfortunately he fired me in the very meeting I planned to share the plan so we will never know what might have happened.

Despite this turn of events, I left with the “This will only work…” question / provocation ringing in my ears. As you look at your own business challenges can you answer the same question?

Jon Evans is chief customer officer at System1 Group, and host of the Uncensored CMO Podcast. He has held senior marketing positions at companies such as Brewdog, Britvic and Lucozade Ribena Suntory.  



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