BrewDog and "Cause Marketing"

Yesterday, BrewDog launched a curious new project. It came with a viral-ready, sharable video and the press release I received described it this way:

The women of BrewDog are taking on pay inequality with the launch of a new protest beer that will be available to women for 20% less than men, mirroring the global gender pay gap.    

Pink IPA, a “beer for girls,” is an overt parody on the tone deaf failed attempts by companies to market products to women. It’s BrewDog’s flagship Punk IPA – the same on the inside, regardless of the label. Proceeds from both Punk IPA and Pink IPA will go to charities that fight gender inequalities.

The video actually did a little better job explaining what they were doing:

BrewDog, for those who don't follow British beer closely, was one of the country's first breweries to replicate the approach and beer styles of American craft brewing. Incredibly ambitious from the start, it borrowed heavily from the Stone playbook of irreverence and controversy to get constant press coverage. It's also a company far more sophisticated about marketing and messaging than its ostensible "punk" image would suggest, and allowed the brewery to explode in sales. It has set the pace for how big craft brewing could become in Britain and has become an international brand with a brewery in the US.

The announcement of this initiative predictably set social media buzzing (often with pointed critiques) and garnered the Scotland-based brewery tons of free press. Before we get too deep into the question of the campaign itself, let's step back and discuss the category it falls into, "cause marketing"--a long tradition that has produced mixed results.

Introducing "Cause Marketing"

The notion of using sales of products to raise funds for or promote a charitable cause goes back decades. It's known as "cause marketing" among advertising folk, a surprisingly straightforward description of the actual practice. Each time a company comes out with one of these initiatives, people ask the same kinds of questions: Is it a genuine effort to support a good cause? Is it a cynical effort to exploit a cause for its marketing potential and to build unearned goodwill for a brand? Or is it some uncomfortable, murky blending of all these motivations?

In some ways, the whole endeavor is compromised. If companies were only concerned with the charities they endorse, they could easily support them privately--and in fact that's exactly what most companies do. Making a media sideshow of one's philanthropy would seem to somewhat diminish its altruism. In addition, skeptics point out that the efforts often raise relatively little money and can often be used to "wash" a company of unfavorable press. ("Greenwashing," where a polluting company makes a superficial gesture to environmentalism, is a classic example.)

On the other hand, there are definite benefits that private philanthropy doesn't provide. For many causes, the media sideshow is the central point, not an unfortunate side-effect. The money is also useful, but bringing attention to a cause may give it the sustenance it needs for years ahead. For these reasons, the question of whether cause marketing campaigns are cynical or altruistic will arise every time a new campaign comes along.

Does it Work?

Cause marketing has been around so long because in certain cases it has been very successful for both the charity and sponsoring company. But there are also many pitfalls. The benefit appears to be connected pretty strongly to preexisting impressions of a company. If a company is known as charitably-oriented, like Patagonia, then efforts like that company's Common Threads initiative are seen in a favorable light by their customers. Companies that haven't established a reputation for philanthropy may for a number of reasons not expect to get the same benefits. Gucci's Chime for Change was a dud; surveys following the campaign found that very few people even knew it existed.


It also matters how well the charity and the company connect. The closer to the brand identity a cause is, the more likely the campaign is to work. And when they're not connected, things can backfire spectacularly. The most-cited case of mismatched partners is probably KFC, with it's fat-and-salt-rich menu, and the Susan G. Komen foundation to fight breast cancer. "Buckets for the cure" got buckets of mockery and bad press. (The Komen foundation seems to be especially bad at picking partners; another disaster happened when they chose a fracking company that painted its drill bits pink--an apparent case of "pinkwashing.")

Successful cause marketing campaigns often involve more than just dollars. Companies get more mileage when they demonstrate a commitment to improve their operations, facilities, or workplaces to align with the partner charity. In brewing, commitments to environmentalism often lead breweries to engineer efficient brewhouses, for example. They may also provide donations of products or services, a level of engagement that takes a company beyond mere marketing.

Finally, it's worth noting that cause marketing is greeted far more favorably by millenials, who may be as much as three times as likely to support it as older consumers. Not only do they make buying decisions based on a company's charitable commitments, but they're likely to trust companies who have a charitable thrust more. On the other hand, millennials expect these efforts to be meaningful and sustainable and to engage them. There is an opportunity for companies to connect to this large, important cohort, but they'll have to do more than slap together a sales-for-dollars scheme and a national PR campaign.

Brewdog's Approach

So back to BrewDog. Based on the experiences of past campaigns, Pink IPA may not have been ideally executed. It lacks a number of the signature elements of a successful effort: to my knowledge BrewDog doesn't have a long history of philanthropy; the connection between BrewDog (sometimes slagged as "BroDog") and women's workplace equity is not obvious; and the campaign seems to include only a brief monetary commitment--and one that will goose sales of (or at least bring attention to)BrewDog's flagship beer.

There's also the matter of the weird message. The brewery didn't just launch a positive, pro-women campaign. It also took the opportunity to shame competitors who have reached out to women. And worse, there was a harsh, weirdly off-message note to the messaging. Here's global head of marketing Sarah Warman's tweet at the campaign's launch:


BrewDog is proud of its Sid Vicious personality, but there are times when using that voice can step on a message or campaign. This seems like a perfect example.

Finally, the campaign also invites an investigation into BrewDog's own workplace practices and culture. Do women occupy top positions in leadership? (They seem to, actually.) Are women paid equitably at BrewDog? Is workplace culture supportive? What percentage of the workforce is female? What proportion of the brewing staff? The answers to these questions would go a long way to answering the question about whether this is a sincere campaign or a more cynical marketing blitz. I am hoping to speak to US CEO Tanisha Robinson and hear more about it, and perhaps we can get some stats to back things up.

As with all marketing blitzes, time will tell. Let's check back with this in six months and reevaluate.

Update, 4:44pm. In case you're not the comments-reading type, scroll down and see what Danny wrote about the company's commitment to philanthropy. It's something I'm betting many weren't aware of (I wasn't).

Also, I wasn't the only one who felt the launch was inartful; BrewDog got a lot of blowback yesterday, and today they've issued an apology/clarifier. In particular, this paragraph should have led all messaging. It is by far the most salient piece, and I can't imagine why BrewDog didn't note it at the outset:

This a project conceived and developed by a talented team of women at BrewDog, including but not limited to Sarah Warman, our Global Head of Marketing, Tanisha Robinson, CEO of BrewDog USA, Allison Green, Global People Director and International Commercial Director, and Zarah Prior, Director of BrewDog Australia. These women wanted to do something to mark International Women’s Day. And it’s safe to say we marked the hell out of it.

Jeff Alworth8 Comments