Brewdog founder James Watt was forced to admit his appearance on BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Who’s The Boss? was “a bit of a disaster” this week after his behaviour sparked a vicious backlash. He was dubbed embarrassing, rude and a “professional arsehole” in his ill-fated bid to hire an area manager in front of the watching public, while wholesaler Best of British Beer even said it was delisting Brewdog beers and giving away any remaining stock as a result.
Some non-punkish members of the drinks industry may have allowed themselves a wry smile at Watt’s predicament. This is, after all, the man who branded the industry-funded Portman Group “a gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing international drinks giants” and gleefully declared he “did not give a shit” what the Portman Group said when it ruled that Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club pale ale encouraged antisocial behaviour and rapid drinking, and warned retailers not to stock it.
Instead we should be promoting, reinforcing and celebrating the vital work the Portman Group does in holding the industry to account, because the alternative would be far worse. That would involve the government stepping in, telling the industry it cannot be trusted to self-regulate and clamping down on it with far more draconian methods than the Portman Group could ever dream up.
Watt saw it as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive piece of PR that made him once again look like the heroic rebel in an industry filled with evil tyrants, but he risked undermining something vital to the industry’s future prosperity: its right to self-govern.
Watt has spent his career skilfully exploiting the media, but now he has seen the flipside and it may cost him dearly. But the industry can learn a lot from everything he has done up until now. Brewdog has won over young drinkers with interesting labels, edgy marketing, strong use of social media, enforcing a point of difference that sets it apart and educating consumers about beer in a way they can enjoy, and all the while it has driven value into the market by convincing people to pay more for artisanal products.
The wine trade, as it seeks to win over younger adults in a bid to arrest sliding sales, could certainly take a leaf out of Brewdog’s book. Retailers seeing MAT figures plummet as they cut prices to compete with Aldi and Lidl should take note of a company growing sales by championing premium products. Maybe just don’t go on TV and boast about firing someone on your first day and spark tweets like: “We’re wild, wacky, all about taking risks. Says the boss of Brewdog right up to the point where he wouldn’t take a risk.”