I know, I know. Writing about BrewDog is so 2009, but then, so is what’s been happening between the brewer and the Portman Group this week. I also know that this is how the BrewDog PR model works – people writing about them, so they don’t have to – but there’s something important to be said here. In this latest spat, Portman took a deep – and from its own point of view entirely justified – disliking to the ‘live fast’ language on Dead Pony Club’s label.
BrewDog’s response was much in line with what we’ve seen years ago. The sinking of eager teeth into that always-exposed juicy flank of the drinks industry: its clumsy and flabby self-regulatory body the Portman Group. Portman totally had it coming, and deserved every spit-laced snarl, but it all felt very familiar, didn’t it? The reaction online was very much ‘same-old, same-old’, but I was concerned by just how ‘retro’ this seemed.
Lately, we’ve seen signs of what could be called ‘phase 2’ of BrewDog, which began with the opening of the more subdued, mature and less branding-heavy bar in Shepherd’s Bush (now easily their most celebrated in London). Was this a one-off, we wondered, or the start of something new? The appearance of the newly-opened BrewDog Sheffield and refurbished beer board of BrewDog Shoreditch suggested that this was The New Way, and indicated, along with some more thoughtful and artistic recent beer releases, access to Cicerone training for staff and shareholders, and a very gradual attitude shift, that we might be seeing a transformation into a newer, maturer BrewDog.
No longer would they need to shout, point and make an exhibition of themselves to get column inches, demand they can’t supply, or popularity beyond their grasp. People come to BrewDog now, not the other way round, thanks in part to the growing international chain of bars. The company (which, I note, is not a term ascribed to many other breweries, perhaps because so few of the newer wave have such a firmly-established estate) is a definitive peak on the UK’s craft beer landscape that we can all point to and say ‘things are different now, look at that‘. So why set this transformation back for the sake of a few (albeit deserved) laughs at the Portman Group?
Based on the subject of recent surveys sent by email to shareholders and BrewDog website users, there have been hints that the brewer’s branding itself is potentially subject to change. Some questions asked what the labels seemed to imply about the company and the beer in the bottle. My own view is that the branding is well overdue an upgrade to keep up with the best of UK’s scene (and why they haven’t asked Johanna Basford to design all of their labels is beyond me). Perhaps, in keeping with the forward-looking ‘phase 2’, a rebrand is on the horizon that would result in labels that wouldn’t have raised the hackles of the Portman Group in the first place.
After all, that label copy is from a couple of years ago, and it seems that BrewDog’s response to the Portman Group’s ruling came from a similar time period. I wonder if, had the Portman Group left it a few months, there wouldn’t even be a label to complain about. As it stands, it feels like we’ve just done a bit of time travel, with no discernible benefits for anyone. BrewDog came under attack for something quite old and responded with the only weapon at their disposal, one just as dated.
As a shareholder, I’m looking forward to seeing more of ‘phase 2’ BrewDog at this year’s AGM, and I hope this week has just been a blip on an otherwise promising progression to something better.