BrewDog, the craft beer and bar phenomenon taking the UK brewing scene quite literally by storm, is best known for its controversial stunts and product launches, the way it takes on the brewing establishment and its deliberately DIY approach to doing business and raising finance. Along the way it arguably brought both craft beer and crowdfunding to the UK.
But last week I discovered another side to the brand as I headed to one of the excellent Chew the Fat talks, where the guest was James Watt, former law student-turned-deep sea fishing captain, but better known as one half of the BrewDog founders.
Those of you familiar with the story will know the BrewDog ethos is built on punk foundations, with all the attitude of the movement which took on the established way of doing things, and the establishment, and taught itself the skills to do things on its own terms. Or, as James puts it in his new book Business for Punks:
‘Completely inspired by punk, we set out to offer a modern-day rebellion against tasteless mass-market beers as well as a hard-core revolt against brands which are so bland they melt into oblivion.’
That sets the tone for a book peppered with punchy advice and quotes from ‘punks’ across the ages – everyone from Winston Churchill (world-saving punk) to Steve Jobs (business punk) and countless others in-between. For a great review of the book, head over to the brilliant Alex Pearmain.
It has a simple aim: to make people as passionate about great craft beer as they are - and to revolutionise the British beer industry and beer-drinking culture in the process.
And reading the book or hearing James speak you get an immediate sense of that passion. But what surprised me were the things he was most passionate about. I even wrote them down:
Engagement, Transparency, Community, People.
All words that wouldn’t look out of place on a big company website or annual report. All elements in communicating what your average brand consultant calls ‘Purpose’.
But, rather than going through the motions (as James would argue most big companies do) or, worse, saying one thing while doing another (VW take note), you can tell they mean it.
James talks passionately about how they engage their fans (fans, not customers), constantly blogging about the art and science of craft brewing, offering specialist beer schools and tasting classes, sharing all their recipes online, videos of how the stuff is made and home-brew kits for sale so people can try it themselves.
Community is central to BrewDog, whether that’s its fans, crowdfunded investors in its Equity for Punks scheme or the local community.
With Equity for Punks, for a minimum investment of £95 you get to own part of the company as well as a range of benefits including discounts in BrewDog bars and shops and a birthday beer, every year. Oh, and there’s the AGM, of course, which is more like going to see your favourite band with some business thrown in.
They don't always get it right, though, and some of its stunts and launches draw as many detractors as plaudits. A petition criticising BrewDog's film to promote its latest Equity for Punks offering drew more than 8,000 signatures. And the recent launch of its ‘Transgender’ beer NoLabel drew a mixed response.
Despite its success, the heart of the business is still on an industrial estate not far from their home town of Aberdeen, which is also the site of its first bar.
The closest ‘brand’ it reminds me of is the German football club FC St Pauli, renowned for its punk ethos and its fans who champion the local causes and people in its diverse corner of Hamburg. Like BrewDog it takes on the establishment; the pirate flags so beloved of its fans symbolise its struggle against rich clubs like Bayern Munich.
Like many entrepreneurial businesses, the BrewDog passion and purpose is driven by the founders, in this case James and his partner Martin Dickie. It’s natural, instinctive, but very carefully executed.
The challenge is how to hold onto it as they grow. And they’re growing fast. From two people and a dog in 2007, they now employ more than 500 people, ship their beer to over 50 countries and have 40 BrewDog bars from Sao Paulo to Tokyo. But James and Martin can’t be everywhere.
Immediately you understand the emphasis they place on having the right team and culture. They need people who will not only replicate their way of making beer, but also their whole philosophy, anti-establishment attitude and, yes, their purpose.
They need more punks.
It’s a challenge they recognise. The book talks a lot about the importance of culture, ensuring the BrewDog team is as engaged as possible and those critical first hires. The two founders interviewed every single one of the first 100 people they employed, which they say was the most valuable time spent in those early years.
BrewDog became a Living Wage employer in October 2014, has launched its own Apprentice scheme and recruited a Happiness Manager to handle training and development for its staff.
As they grew they began to express what it means to work at BrewDog in their own Charter – crowdsourced, naturally, from their people and written in a way that could only be BrewDog. With more than 400 people due to join in 2016, they recognise the need to articulate what BrewDog is about “as we look not only to protect but enhance our company culture”.
Whether with growth comes a greater sense of ‘responsibility’ is another matter. I suspect the stunts and products will still offend as many as they delight. Partly because they’re designed to, but also because keeping everyone happy, well, isn’t very punk. But there’s a difference between offending the establishment and alienating parts of the communities they really care about.
It’s a fascinating business and a successful one, combining risk-taking, an obsession with the numbers (something which early punk and indie labels could have learned from) and a clear sense of purpose.
We haven’t seen anything like this in business before. But that, I guess, is the point.
Picture credit: BrewDog