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Can you teach an old BrewDog new tricks?

As CEO and founder James Watt gives £100 million in shares to the beer brand’s employees, is this the turning point that signals a new, improved BrewDog?

Harry Lang

This week, The Caterer reported that ‘love him or loathe him’ BrewDog CEO James Watt is handing over £100 million in shares to staff. He’s presumably taken this dramatic and impressive step to earn back some of the trust/ loyalty/ faith/ pride/ respect he lost over (*checks notes*) numerous HR and PR debacles in recent years.

Whilst on the surface a great leadership play, this largesse is, at least in part, mitigation for some fairly nefarious behaviours within the business over the last decade. As such, the generosity is only the glowing tip of a fairly cloudy iceberg – one which has threatened to sink the good ship BrewDog as it was haphazardly steered by Watt, at times seemingly under the influence of his own product.

Since its inception and gangbusting launch in 2008, the Scottish brewer has see-sawed between disruptive industry darling and the spoilt child of an inattentive parent. It picked ill-conceived fights with everyone from the ASA to the Portman Group via child protection groups and the estate of the late, great Elvis Presley.

Warming to its mission to upset the universe, BrewDog also achieved the notable feat of ostracising almost every major socio-cultural group, with accusations of homophobia, transphobia and irresponsible product delivery (its Tokyo* Imperial Stout was a pant wetting 18,2% – and chastised accordingly).

Having pissed off everyone in the outside world, BrewDog looked inward. In June of 2021, a significant faction of 70+ former employees, collaborating under the moniker ‘Punks With Purpose’ (as a veiled dig at BrewDog’s own ‘Punk’ positioning) signed an open letter criticising BrewDog's employment practices. One paragraph was particularly damning:-

"Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear".

Soon after, in July of last year, Marketing Week posted an article decrying BrewDog’s attempt to advertise its Hard Seltzer brand’s launch:-

Ads posted by BrewDog and fellow hard seltzer brands Drty and Whisp were banned by the ASA for making ‘misleading’ and ‘irresponsible’ health claims.

I was asked to contribute to the latter piece, counselling the brand to batten down the hatches on its provocative marketing:-

“…there’s a real opportunity for Watt to read the situation and make some serious fundamental foundational changes to how the business operates and how he operates, and then he’ll come out smiling. What happened with everything including its position against the ASA, that’s not it”.

After a year of relative calm, Watt’s big cash injection to reward loyalty amongst potentially disenfranchised employees is making news for the right reasons. As a standalone act of team validation and empowerment, it’s certainly a rich gesture, but because of the history, there’s a lingering smell of… something.

Watt’s Icarus complex is acute. He’s flown close to the sun so many times, one hopes a BrewDog sun cream is on the cards, if for nothing else than his own wellbeing. His apathy towards the status quo and drive to see growth at any cost has repeatedly cast him as a villain, as opposed to one of the most exciting and successful British entrepreneurs of his generation – which he undoubtedly is.

That said, does he even care what people think? According to pub industry bible The Morning Advertiser, BrewDog sales are on fire. Its Hazy Jane IPA is smashing it in the on-trade and they’re opening twenty seven new bars and JVs across the UK this year, plus there’s a rumoured £2 Billion IPO afoot – a big enough chunk of change to make even the most antagonising boss do some housekeeping.

There’s nothing more punk than acting in ways that peeves the masses – but one suspects that the new, grown up, soon-to-be-public BrewDog will be a rather different, better behaved breed – a loving family pet rather than a mongrel that pees on lampposts. Hopefully this £100 Mill gift to his long suffering employees is the (very expensive, but likely tax efficient) foundation from which Watt can build the new, improved BrewDog.

And, potentially, the new, improved James Watt, CEO.

Harry Lang is the author of ‘Brands, Bandwagons & Bullshit’ a marketing guidebook for those starting their career (and anyone else who can’t get their head around how marketing works). You can contact him at @MrHarryLang or connect on Linked In


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