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When Corporate Culture Goes Wrong: BrewDog

June 11, 2021.
Businessman sitting down on steps looking anxious

Maintaining a positive corporate culture is crucial for the welfare of a business and its employees. Corporate culture refers to how the attitudes, beliefs and values of a company are evident and shared throughout the organisation.

On the contrary, popular Scottish brewers BrewDog recently made headlines for allegedly creating a workplace culture of fear and toxicity. We examine the issues at play in the BrewDog story and how damaging negative workplace culture can be to employee morale if left unchecked.

What Did BrewDog Do?

An open letter was posted on Twitter by the account Punks With Purpose, which was signed by sixty one former members of staff and forty five others who wished to stay anonymous. The letter’s content claims that BrewDog does not live up to the values they say they uphold, including fake marketing designed for viral impact, neglect of staff, and a culture of misogyny.

This is not the first time that BrewDog has courted controversy, following several PR stunts that received a backlash, such as 'Pink IPA', a spoof beer designed for women. Although many points in the letter are unsubstantiated with factual evidence, for many spectators, the very fact that it was written at all speaks volumes about the unhealthy working culture at the Scottish brewery.

The letter went into detail on the apparently toxic work culture, the authors asserting that “By valuing growth, speed and action above all else, your company has achieved incredible things, but at the expense of those who delivered your dreams. In the wake of your success, people are left burnt out, afraid and miserable.” An example of BrewDog not living up to its values includes its mission to be environmentally responsible.

The letter alleges that the company’s brewing of an eco-friendly saison with glacier water resulted in half of it being put down the drain, while the founders' use of private planes contravened their stated goals to minimise their environmental impact. BrewDog's sustainability policy, freely available on their website, claimed "we have been working on ways to minimise our environmental impact and benefit everyone."

Punks With Purpose’s letter also states that there were “genuine safety concerns” at the business after employees were told to ignore health and safety guidelines. It adds that there were toxic attitudes directed towards junior members of staff including belittling, pressuring into working beyond their capacity, and feeling forced out of the company. The former staff say that they felt afraid to speak out about the environment they were in and have since suffered with mental illness. 

BrewDog CEO, James Watts, has since responded to the letter stating that “We are committed to doing better” and “we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more.” He added “we aren’t going to make excuses, we’re going to take action.”

The manner in which companies respond to negative press can shape the lasting public impression of such incidents, and BrewDog has opted for messaging that shows contrition and accountability rather than dismissing the allegations outright. The response has drawn both praise and criticism for its admission of guilt on several of the points mentioned.

Person Holding BrewDog Tangerine Beer Can

What Issues Were There With Marketing?

As mentioned, the open letter was heavily critical of the way BrewDog carried out its marketing campaigns. They allege that BrewDog sending 'protest beer' to the Russian government to support LGBT communities was a fabrication designed to encourage engagement and viral hits.

They also claim that founders James Watts and Martin Dickie changing their names to Elvis as a PR stunt did not happen. The letter describes how BrewDog has exploited all publicity, both good and bad, to gain exposure.

The key marketing takeaway from the example of BrewDog is that ethical marketing stems from having a foundation of honesty and authenticity. Not only are lies extremely damaging to a brand if they come to light, but it is in every business's best interest to embody the values that they wish to instil in their customers. The 'off the wall' marketing from BrewDog served to enhance the reputation of its founders rather than the brand, and ultimately contributed towards the cult of personality that Punks With Purpose describe.

Why Culture health Checks Are Important

Culture health checks measure the health of a workplace and uncover issues within the environment to provide recommendations on how to improve the situation for employees. The outcome of this provides a brand with integrity and authenticity and ensures that their workplace culture aligns with their mission and values. A positive working environment promotes employee motivation and encourages them to act as brand ambassadors.

Culture checks are important at any stage of a business's development as company culture can change over time - sometimes organisational culture can be diluted over time due to expansion and miscommunication or misunderstanding. Brands with a healthy corporate culture have long-standing norms, behaviours and values.

The most established and successful brands are those that have maintained specific internal cultural norms and values. From conception to the present day, these brands have a distinct personality and set of behaviours that we expect and accept whenever we engage with that brand. 

Workplace Meeting And Discussion

Why Company Culture Should Be Outlined

If you have a corporate culture that reflects your ethos, staff will be able to know whether or not they align with the values. Staff who feel their lived experience is reflective of the image their brand is projecting are likely to become more passionate and motivated about the work they do. This allows businesses to market the company internally as well as to customers and future employees.

Company culture should start with a clear mission that provides it with purpose and identifies its goals. It should outline the business’s values, practices and people to encourage staff to feel secure and loyal to the company. Our sister company, Mackman Research, offers culture health checks that encompass employee satisfaction combined with stakeholder workshops, in-depth employee interviews, and sometimes even mystery shopping, to establish an overall view of a workplace's health status.

The aftermath of the controversy

Since this article was originally written in June, BrewDog have continued to make headlines with their controversial behaviour. Recently, the feud between James Watts and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) caused a stir after BrewDog ran a misleading advertising campaign on Instagram, which has since been pulled.

The campaign showed BrewDog's latest Clean & Press Hard Seltzer beer with the accompanying text reading 'Due to advertising regulations we cannot claim this drink is healthy'. In the post, BrewDog went on to claim that the drink had 'no carbs or sugar' only a 'little bit of alcohol', but then added that 'this is not a health drink'.

The post received various complaints to the ASA who responded by saying that the post 'implied that the drink was healthy and were therefore general health claims that were not permitted for alcoholic drinks.' BrewDog described the campaign as 'tongue in cheek' but agreed not to use it again.

While the nature of the campaign was arguably on brand to be tongue in cheek and rebellious, given the surrounding context of the post and BrewDog having already recently landed in hot water, the post was inappropriate. The negative response to the campaign and its misleading claims could consequently have implications for BrewDog's already damaged reputation.

Summary

Overall, maintaining a positive corporate culture is crucial for ensuring the wellbeing of your staff and ultimately the business itself. Not addressing issues, being deceitful or not aligning your actions with your ethos, ultimately poses the risk of leading to scandals and situations getting out of hand.

A company culture check can be performed for any size of business that has identified that there is something amiss amongst their internal tribe. If your workplace has a slightly frosty vibe, if employees just don't seem to be singing from the same song sheet, or if you are looking to expand but want to ensure that the next generation truly understand who you are and what you stand for, then a culture health check will provide the perfect guide to making changes and aligning all team members.

If you are looking for support with your business's culture, please see Mackman Research's company culture health check services. Alternatively, you can fill in our contact form or email our customer services team at customerservice@mackman.co.uk.

Eleanor Joyce

Eleanor Joyce

Marketing Assistant

Eleanor is a marketing assistant at Mackman with an academic background and a Masters degree in History. As well as conducting research on behalf of clients, she produces insight-driven content for both our own and clients' websites. She also assists with the day-to-day administration at the office.

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