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Brand Building with Us vs Them

Liam Curley
Liam Curley
8 min read
Brand Building with Us vs Them

Starting in the US in the 1970s, the craft beer movement has blown up across the globe. In the past 20 years, that growth rate has been particularly steep in Europe.

In the UK, between 2012 and 2022, the size of the market nearly doubled from £751 million to £1.34 billion, and BrewDog is the largest producer.[1]

Birthplace of a punk empire

In 2021, BrewDog, the largest UK producer, exported to more than 60 countries, had a revenue of around £200 million and was valued at approximately £1.88 billion[2]. That’s a massive achievement for a company that launched in 2007 from a garage in Aberdeen, North East Scotland, with a £30,000 investment, two men, and one dog.

The founders, James and Martin, had home-brewed for a couple of years before launching the company. Upon meeting and receiving positive feedback from legendary beer journalist Michael Jackson[3], they quit their jobs and went all-in on their passion.

A Clear Mission

BrewDog Mission

BrewDog had a clear and consistent Mission from early on, which would be easy to follow and communicate for their team as they grew:

  • Make great beer
  • Shake up a stuffy industry with Punk attitude
  • Include humour wherever possible

In 2007, the UK craft beer was small and growing. There were no established ‘big players’, and the multinationals weren’t paying much attention.

Positioning

BrewDog Positioning

The UK beer market consisted of mass-market lagers and micro brewing cask ales, which generally had a stuffy and traditional image. BrewDog identified a new position as a modern, ‘cool’ brand that would offer quality, microbrewed craft beer.

The ‘Punk’ anti-establishment personality would be perfect for carving out the position, as it would contrast against the traditional ale producers and the established industrial lager producers.

Bread and Butter Sprinkled with Anarchy

The founders sculpted a brand through a JackAss style approach to social media. The company formed just as social was beginning to take off, not long after Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had launched. So, there was ample white space for early adopters with big personalities, think Gary Vaynerchuk, to get massive organic growth through consistent social media engagement and content creation. They engaged with online bloggers and sent samples before it was a widely used marketing tactic.

It was the perfect timing for a punk with a tight marketing budget that wasn’t afraid to get on camera. Brewdog mixed up their content. Most of what they were posting was about the beer and brewing itself. They’d sprinkle in explosive and outrageous content that would grab attention, often from the mainstream media due to its outrageous nature.

They quickly built an online following on the back of this approach, which would naturally spread offline, as people drink beer in person with friends, not in a forum.

Your Inner Self

Your Inner Self
‘We are what we have’ - Russell W Belk, 1988 [4]

We know that humans use material objects, hobbies, relationships, experiences, etc., to define their identity.[5] We use the car we drive, the job we have, the house we buy, the hobbies we take up, and the coffee we drink to define our identity.

But, if we use objects to define our identity, how do we decide that a given object, or brand, provides us with the perfect material to reinforce our ‘inner-self’? In the case of beer, if we put aside the aspect of whether you enjoy the beer’s flavour, what defines the beer brand? What gives it its ‘personality’?

This all depends on the group that the individual wants to be a part of. The group determines which brands should be held in high esteem and which are a source of embarrassment.[6]

Knowingly or unknowingly, we make every purchase to reinforce our established inner-self identity. We make that selection based on the product’s status within our group, and as we're part of several social groups, the decision depends on the context of the product, where it’s consumed, and who is watching.

Subcultures

Subcultures and social status pyramids

This brings us to tribes, and in particular modern subcultures. Every modern, upcoming brand establishes a foothold with a customer base when targeting a small niche, a subculture. GoPro did it with surfers. Supreme did it with skaters. Rocawear did it with HipHop fans.

There are benefits in product development of focusing on a niche, but sticking with brand, by targeting a subculture, you can identify the types of activities, traits, and aesthetics that would appeal to the subculture in question, and mould all marketing activity to develop a personality and connection with the group.[7]

When influencers within the group, the people at the top of the social chain, approve a brand as a symbol that distinguishes insiders from outsiders, those lower down the pyramid follow suit and start buying the brand to reinforce their status within the tribe.

Authenticity

Authenticity and what really motivates the brand

BrewDog became a success because they caught on to the wave of young hipsters in the UK that view niche, individuality, and ‘craft’ as aspirational living and marks of a lifestyle that fits their self-identity. Mass-produced food and drink is a turnoff to a consumer group that’s rapidly grown on the back of artisan coffee shops and pop-up food markets.

But, you can’t build a brand by targeting this group. It’s too big, too fragmented, and hard to reach for a start-up. BrewDog needed to succeed by targeting the existing market of beer enthusiasts. Within this market, they needed to be viewed as a credible craft beer producer. Then, on the back of this, they could produce a youthful brand that would appeal to the subsection of the homebrewers and cask ale drinkers under the age of 35 who wanted something that didn’t look old stuffy when they took it to a party.

This is where we bring it back to the founders. BrewDog leaned heavily on the story of meeting the famous beer journalist, Michael Jackson. Every beer-loving blogger and enthusiast would have known Jackson, and his stamp of approval gave BrewDog instant credibility, so they reference his name in every interview.

Whilst the PR stunts were critical to building explosive awareness amongst the mass media and market, that counts for nothing if the ‘real’ beer people don’t respect you and don’t like the beer. The frequent content around beer, brewing, and tasting, gave BrewDog the foundations and credibility amongst the subculture to support their early growth.

What makes a brand ‘cool’? Qualitative research[8] has identified ten characteristics that consumers widely use to determine whether a brand is cool, and authenticity is one of them, but what does it mean? For branding, it’s the difference between front-stage and back-stage,[9] or more accurately, the lack of difference. Customers determine a brand as authentic when public-facing elements mirror the private. It means, for a brand that says it’s passionate about making great beer, when we raise the curtains to see what’s happening behind closed doors, we find a company that acts like one that genuinely does care about the beer it makes.

BrewDog uses their founder’s story, their knowledge of beer, with James and Martin at the forefront, as a constant reinforcement to support their authenticity. Without it, they’d just be a couple of prankster YouTubers looking to make money. With the authenticity, they can access the beer insiders, who provide approval, which means the rest of the group takes this new brand as their own to climb up social ladders and spread the word about BrewDog.

You'll Love It or Hate It

Polarising Campaigns

Humans like binary opposites.[10] We want to categorise everything in groups A or B. You’re with me or against me. When brands or people use polarisation, their message spreads, and for good or bad, it works.

BrewDog uses explosive marketing campaigns to grab attention, and these campaigns are polarising. They’ve launched the strongest beer in the world by pouring it through squirrel roadkill. They’ve hired ‘little people’ to campaign with them outside the Houses of Parliament. They launched a beer called ‘Hello My Name is Vladimir’ with the slogan, ‘not for gays,’ satirising the Russian law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Some people love these campaigns. Others hate them. This feeds into their punk mentality:

“At BrewDog, we reject the status quo, we are passionate, we don’t give a damn and we always do something which is true to ourselves. Our approach has been anti-authoritarian and non-conformist from the word go.” James Watt, BrewDog

Psychologically speaking, this punk attitude is the perfect approach for building a brand with a subculture. BrewDog creates two camps, those that want to maintain the status quo and those that don’t. Those that support mass-produced beers and those that don’t.

Us vs Them

Us vs Them

So, when they build their brand with ‘real’ beer lovers, the shocking stunts reinforce their status as a brand against the mass market. As mentioned, we use different traits to assign ‘cool’ status, and one of these is autonomy. It’s cool to fight convention, to follow your own path. When folks in the other camp tell us to hate the brand, it makes us want to love them even more.

This Punk attitude helped BrewDog build its status within their subculture of young beer lovers. It reinforced their cool rating, and it raised their profile. Every time a newspaper picked up a stunt, whether the PR was good or bad, it grew its following.

The Ultimate Campaign to Build Advocates

Dial up the Superfans

BrewDog wrapped up the Us vs Them approach with the ultimate campaign to create brand advocates. Going down the traditional route with banks or private equity firms wouldn’t have been a good fit when the business needed investment to grow. Instead, they took their us against the world approach.

In 2009, they launched Equity for Punks, a crowdfunding campaign, with a 1940s tank, which they parked outside the Bank of England and the London Stock Exchange. They declared an ‘assault’ on the established financial elites.

In the following years, they ran three more crowdfunded rounds of investment, raised £15 million to grow their business, and introduced 30,000 new shareholders. All of whom would become the ultimate brand advocates to sell the brand and grow to become, ironically, a multinational company valued at more than £1 billion.


Footnotes

Facts and anecdotes from the BrewDog Story come from Business for Punks by James Watt

[1] Source - IbisWorks

[2] Source - Vinepair

[3] More on Michael Jackson from The Guardian

[4] Russell W. Belk, Possessions and the Extended Self, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 15, Issue 2, September 1988, Pages 139–168

[5] First established by William James - James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York, NY: H. Holt and Company.

[6] Kuo, Ying-Feng & Hou, J.-R. (2017). Oppositional brand loyalty in online brand communities: Perspectives on social identity theory and consumer-brand relationship. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research. 18. 254-268.

[7] Warren C, Batra R, Loureiro SMC, Bagozzi RP. Brand Coolness. Journal of Marketing. 2019;83(5):36-56.

[8] Warren C, Batra R, Loureiro SMC, Bagozzi RP. Brand Coolness. Journal of Marketing. 2019;83(5):36-56.

[9] Front and Back-Stage definition of authenticity comes from: Cinelli, Melissa and LeBoeuf, Robyn A., Keeping It Real: How Perceived Brand Authenticity Affects Product Perceptions (June 5, 2019). Journal of Consumer Psychology.

[10] Rozenkrants, Bella & Wheeler, S & Shiv, Baba. (2017). Self-Expression Cues in Product Rating Distributions: When People Prefer Polarizing Products. Journal of Consumer Research. 44. 759-777.

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