Multinational beer brand BrewDog has once again riled up the internet, this time with the controversial launch of a new, online video-on-demand service, the BrewDog Network. Launching on Monday (Aug. 28), the $4.99/month service currently features programming such as The BrewDog Show, Four Sheets with Zane Lamphrey, and Are You Smarter than a Drunk Person?
But attention was not focused so much on those shows, or even the idea of a “Netflix for beer”-esque proposition, so much as the rollout itself.
The BrewDog Network launched via a self-described parody site, beer.porn—a play on popular pornographic site Pornhub. Its aim, according to the business, was to highlight the new streaming service’s intention to be bigger than one of the internet’s most popular pastimes: watching people have sex.
The microsite featured sexualizations of the on-demand network’s range of shows, under titles such as Two Amateurs go Brewdogging, Nerdy Brunette Loves Big Cocktails, and Josh has an Ale-to-Mouth Adventure. Also included was a video named Jungle Fevre, a play on the phrase “jungle fever,” a derogatory reference toward interracial relationships. After considerable backlash, the site was removed within 24 hours of publication, with the beer.porn link directing straight to the BrewDog Network’s main site. Beer Writer Carla Jean Lauter took a screenshot of the site before its removal.
It’s not the first time the brand has used this specific marketing trope. The same tactic was utilized for the launch of its Soho, London bar in February 2016. The bar played on being located in one of Central London’s less fancy locales, displaying neons advertising “Beer Porn” and featured its own “phone sex” line—featuring pre-recorded BrewDog employees talking luridly about beer on the other end of the line.
A beer called No Label was brewed to mark the launch of the bar, and celebrate an area known for its sexual diversity. However, as with its latest stunt, this beer also received considerable backlash from consumers, in particular among the LGBTQ+ community. A spokesperson for LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall spoke with The Independent about its concerns over BrewDog’s use of language in this campaign, and how that language undermines the diversity of the trans community.
WHY IT MATTERS
Toward the end of a GBH profile on BrewDog published in 2015, we asked if people had already seen enough of the “brash, in your face marketing schemes” on which the company has built its brand. That was three years ago. We also posed that the multinational business “may well have to balance its passion with poise” as it sought continued growth. But based on the campaigns BrewDog has employed since, it would appear that this was not a concern of founders James Watt MBE and Martin Dickie MBE, as the expansion of their company—founded in Fraserburgh, Scotland in 2007—continues with gusto.
None of these questionable marketing decisions seem to have slowed growth for the global conglomerate that owns nearly 60 bars, a cidery, a distillery, and a U.S. production brewery and hotel. In its annual report published in March 2018, BrewDog’s overall revenue was £111.5M ($149M), up 55% from 2016. Its year-over-year UK sales were up 78% in 2017, ranking them as the fastest-growing food and drinks company in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the sixth year running—a record for a British company. The business also crowdfunded $7 million in the U.S. and more than £10M ($12.9) in the UK in 2018. The numbers demonstrate BrewDog’s popularity is not generally affected by regular criticism for its marketing stunts—at least in the context of sales and profit.
The use of beer.porn to promote the launch of the BrewDog Network is the latest in a series of campaigns that has seen the brand open itself up to significant consumer backlash—particularly on social media. In March 2018, similar reverberations were heard around the beer industry when the brand launched Pink IPA—a play on its flagship Punk IPA, one equipped with a pink label and the tagline “Beer for Girls.”
BrewDog says the stunt was designed to raise awareness of the gender pay gap and inequality within the beer industry. However, by making the beneficiary of the campaign the butt of the joke, the conglomerate once again opened itself up to heavy criticism. It was reported within the industry that some BrewDog bars refused to serve Pink IPA. When a GBH reporter visited BrewDog Liverpool within days of its launch, the beer or its marketing materials couldn't be found anywhere. One former employee even stated on Twitter that she left the company due to this particular campaign.
“For every slightly interesting thing they do with beer, there are another five hundred cock-ups which make everyone groan, whether it’s ‘beer for girls’ or a complete car crash of a televised recruitment drive,” Kirsty Walker wrote on her blog Lady Sinks the Booze. “When they trend on Twitter, your first thought is not, ‘I wonder what innovative beer-related story this will be,’ but ‘What are these clowns up to now?’”
It’s not only its marketing stunts that have recently seen the company in hot water. In August, BrewDog was forced to pay a former employee £12,000 ($15,600) after his dismissal was deemed to be unfair after an employment tribunal. James Ross, who was working at the firm’s brewery in Ellon, Scotland, found himself out of a job after declaring to his employer that he was losing his eyesight.
“BrewDog try to claim they’re this top company to work for, but I took this tribunal to show what they really are,” Ross told Scottish newspaper The Herald after winning his tribunal.
Tweets referencing the beer.porn site were deleted by BrewDog the day after their original publication on Aug. 28, but not before a significant amount of Twitter users took the opportunity to weigh in. Carla Jean Lauter explained why the use of pornography to advertise the BrewDog Network could be problematic for many.
In an interesting twist, one of BrewDog’s deleted tweets also displayed the branding of the Sapporo-owned, Canadian brewery Unibroue on the side of a cork. A GIF of the cork created for Twitter was used to mimic an ejaculating penis. Unibroue did not respond to requests for comment from GBH at the time of this article’s publication.
[Update: A few hours after publication, Unibroue responded to our request for comment:
“Brewdog did not ask Unibroue for permission to use the Unibroue logo in its advertisement. Immediately upon learning of the publication of the video, Unibroue took action to have the video removed.
With respect to advertising, we guide Unibroue advertising and communications with the same irreproachable standard of quality that we dedicate to every beer that we craft and brew. We continue to require and respect this standard that we have set for ourselves. Expect nothing less of Unibroue.”]
“This is about the ramifications for women in the beer world of appealing to certain sections of this market,” beer writer and journalist Melissa Cole tells GBH. She also vented her frustration with the campaign on Twitter. "The premise of this campaign, according to [Alex Myers], the head of the PR agency, Manifest [the firm behind this campaign], is to lead people away from porn, which is simply delusional."
Manifest founder and CEO Myers also took to Twitter to defend his agency’s campaign, claiming in a discussion with Cole that the beer.porn site was “mocking porn,” among other responses. It’s perhaps worth remembering the old adage that, if satire looks like the real thing, it’s not satire—it’s just a failed joke. The London-based PR firm has worked with BrewDog on a number of its campaigns over the years, including both this and the launch of Pink IPA.
In the wake of yet more backlash, many consumers and industry folks may be pondering if BrewDog will continue with such tactics. Will they keep increasing the shock value of each campaign as tolerance increases, or will there become a point when people eventually stop buying BrewDog and the tactics have to be shifted as a result?
“The reaction from the beer writing community to their porn stunt seemed to be split between condemnation and intervention. Some frothed and snapped, others genuinely tried to point out where they had gone wrong,” continued Kirsty Walker in her scathing blog post. “My first reaction was, ‘I don’t care enough to try and fix them.’ They don’t listen, they’re not interested in consumer feedback. They are beyond help. They have 99 likes on their Facebook post about the beer porn nonsense. 99 likes for their ‘major overhaul and groundbreaking network.’”
As quick as the company moved to cover its beer.porn digital footprint, BrewDog also released a blog post and video on Aug. 29. But the effort didn’t issue an apology or explanation of why it was posted, rather presenting a general pseudo-concern that the company should be more aware of its actions.
“As a company we haven’t been quick enough to realise that we have now built the platform we need to engage and excite people about craft beer and we no longer need to try and wrap things up in crazy stunts to make our voice heard,” the brewery wrote in a blog post published in the wake of the removal of the beer.porn link. “We are now a bigger company, a bigger employer and a bigger community than we used to be, and with that comes an increased responsibility.”
Despite the backlash, BrewDog’s meteoric growth would indicate the mainstream market continues to buy heavily into the brand. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what kind of reaction the brewery’s largest investor, TSG Consumer Partners—which invested £213M into the company for a 22% share in April 2017—has had to the latest round of marketing hijinks.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way,” James Watt told GBH in 2015. “I prefer to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures.”