Marketing mishaps of 2018: Why BrewDog's body language was off
A view from Andrew Gibson

Marketing mishaps of 2018: Why BrewDog's body language was off

This year underlined the difference between BrewDog's bark and its bite.

First things first, two important pieces of context:

• I’m a BrewDog fan. I like what it stands for. I like the beer. I hope my dad is going to get some in for Christmas

• We withdrew from a pitch for BrewDog last year

Both of these make me look more closely at BrewDog than I perhaps otherwise would. But neither is as important as the fact that BrewDog is an extraordinary marketing organisation.

Whatever you personally think of its "shock and awe" PR strategies, the dogmatic rhetoric of co-founder James Watt or its sometimes provocative limited editions, you can’t deny its success. BrewDog is growing like a virus, spreading internationally and making friends along the way. A poster child for aggressive growth in the modern world.

So where’s the mishap?

Well, to me, it lies in the fact that this year a marked gap has emerged between its language and its body language.

To help explain the difference, I’ll use Leon as an example – a brand that says almost nothing but which has impeccable body language. Visit any Leon and you’ll note three things almost immediately:

• A queue – this is a popular place (NB The "queue" even exists at times of day when there plainly shouldn’t be one.

• A selection of cookbooks for sale – I’m sure Leon sells almost none of these, but the body language says "we have nothing to hide"

• A whole stack of family photos – I bet less than 1% of people actively look at these, and even fewer have investigated who they are. Nonetheless, the body language says "trustworthy family business"

That body language, combined with a ruthlessly consistent visual identity and some high-profile retail units in places where you need "fast", and you’ve got a great brand without ever needing to "say" anything.  

Similarly, think about the current vogue for brand partnerships in the world of fashion (incidentally, a category that seems to truly understand "body language"). H&M x Versace, Palace x Ralph Lauren, Supreme x Louis Vuitton.

On one level, they speak to a simple value exchange between organisations – Versace "giving" footfall and fashion credentials to H&M, H&M "giving" cheap production and a gateway product to the Versace universe.

But the body language is the bit that leaves the lasting impression. These brands don’t just collaborate, they are friends. And who you are friends with says more about you than we all might like to admit.

Which brings us back to BrewDog.

Historically, it has projected brilliant body language. Incubating other craft breweries in its bars and through its distribution channels. Hosting one hell of a good "AGM". Even periodically giving away free pints of Punk IPA without the need for a PR crisis.

And then the gap emerged.

Having spent years shouting loudly about never selling out, the tyranny of big brewers and the Portman Group, BrewDog sold 25% to a private equity company that also owns Pabst and banked £100m in the process.

You’re really enthusiastic about independence? Tell that to your face.

A press release offering free beer to Trump supporters was issued, rowed back on (blaming a "rogue faction" in the company's PR agency), twisted into a "love not hate" promotion and all the beer destined for the promotion was "sent back" (to BrewDog, it later emerged).

You’re a socially conscious company that takes a stand on issues? Tell that to your PR team.

Perhaps most head-scratchingly for my work life: write a book about how all advertising is bullshit and unnecessary, then issue an advertising brief, go through multiple rounds of work from multiple agencies and ultimately produce traditional advertising with comparative product proposition.

You hate advertising? Tell that to your Metro coverwrap.

Finally, and perhaps most troublingly, design a well-meaning stunt about the gender pay gap and back it up with a promise to give 20% of proceeds to charities promoting gender equality in the workplace. Finally, a piece of communications where the body language was good. Then BrewDog sarcastically called it "Pink IPA" and pushed the language out of sync. It appears that, in communications as in life, your past body language buys you the right not to have to explain that you’re being sarcastic.

Altogether not a vintage year for BrewDog (although I guess its results beg to differ).

But I’d really like the brand to get back to its best. So here’s what I think we can learn:

• As an industry, we can and should consider our body language at least as much as our actual language

• As a general rule, let your body language come before your voice. Patagonia earned the right to say "do not buy this jacket" through its body language. It offered to fix clothes for free long before it took a stance against buying new.

• There’s still a place for comparative product advertising – even BrewDog is doing it…

Andrew Gibson is chief strategy officer at Creature