City & Gild: All Hail Real Ale

Craig Wills
Follow Craig

As a bloke of a certain age, the new wave real ale, artisan brewing phenomenon has not passed me by un-noticed; the emergence of owner-operated, boutique, passion-led breweries has reinvigorated a dying pub culture and given ales a new energy comparable to the recent growth in wine and vodka.

It may just have done for ale what the Kindle has done for books.
This week saw a PR own goal from the brooding and monolithic Portman Group, established in 1989 with the mission of “Leading Responsible Alcohol Standards” – the group is funded by nine of the brewing big boys, including SAB Miller, Diageo, and Carlsberg. Its remit extended into encouraging marketing standards primarily in response to the backlash around alcopops in the mid-1990s.

As an industry-funded body the Portman Group holds no legal power over any brewer, stakeholder or otherwise. It sets voluntary codes and in some instances has been instrumental in effecting some legislation. While its efforts to reduce alcohol unit consumption and protect our cultural fabric by discouraging irresponsible behaviour is a worthy mission, the cynic in me and staunch believer in free choice guffaws at their sanctimonious damning of the popular Brewdog.

The story goes like this: Brewdog owners Martin Dickie and James Watt were “bored of the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales that dominated the UK market” and so set up a brand that prides itself on its products and celebrates and rewards its customers – it is part-owned by almost 16,000 “punks”, ale-lovers who all have small financial stakes. The premise is anti-establishment, not anarchic but flexible, artisan, charismatic to its core. Over the last seven years it has enjoyed triple digit business growth. To say it is the face of a new ale order is playing down its role in re-invigorating a once languishing industry.

So, when a group like the Portman Group delivers a po-faced written order that the Brewdog team has “potentially breached a code in their packaging and communication” for the Dead Pony Club product, the eloquent and painfully on-brand response showed how the values of an organisation and the principles by which it exists should never be ignored; it is these values that have the big-brewers running scared, using meaningless rhetoric rather than innovation to protect their market share.

The Portman Group claimed that the packaging and language used by Brewdog for its Dead Pony Club pale ale encouraged irresponsibility, binge drinking and all the clichéd “bad” things associated with booze. In its rightful defense, Brewdog ignored with some admirable spirit the letter it received and eloquently responded that its customers are intelligent enough to engage the brand with the right level of sensible enthusiasm.

While organisations like Brewdog grow, redefining the industry through how they sell on and off trade, how they communicate, how they innovate and how they respect their customers, the big players need to take a long, hard look at how they will respond to these emerging players. Recent history has shown that change is the only constant – the record industry missed the signs, now the hotel industry is feeling the heat from Airbnb. Innovators are the lifeblood of industry; cheers to Brewdog.

Craig Wills is the executive strategy director of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,