Employment

Is 'edgy upstart' BrewDog now 'boring and ubiquitous' after years of scandal? Experts weigh in

Longstanding and controversial BrewDog CEO James Watt has quit after years of scandal. What toll do worker fallouts take on a company?

BrewDog

From its Scottish beginnings, BrewDog's beer is now sold around the world. Image: Bernt Rostad/Flickr

BrewDog’s CEO James Watt has stepped down after 17 years in which he took the Punk IPA makers from upstart brewers to a corporate behemoth with a “controversies” section of its Wikipedia and sales in the hundreds of millions of cans.

Allegations of a toxic culture and low pay have dogged the Scottish badboys of beer. But Watt’s departure marks a point, say experts, where the chickens may be coming home to roost – and shows how consumers want companies to make good on their ideals.

In an ostensibly type-written and hand-corrected letter, the CEO of the £1.6bn-valued company announced his resignation, saying he was “grateful for the tough times” and the “learnings they provided, the resolve they instilled and the perspective they offered”. He will now transition to being “captain and co-founder” of the beer company.

Since being founded in 2007, BrewDog has become a giant of the beer world, and rumours now swirl it is preparing to float on the stock market. With beer names including Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Speedball, and No Label, the world’s first “non-binary, transgender beer”, the brand traded on its edgy image.

Watt criticised fellow 2010s craft beer darlings Camden Town after the brewery sold up to AB InBev in 2015, vowing to stop stocking its beers. BrewDog initially raised investment from supporters through the “Equity for Punks” scheme, and was named a Big Issue Changemaker in 2020. But scale and time can take its toll, says Graham Soult, retail consultant at CannyInsights.com.

“One of the biggest challenges for any expanding hospitality or retail business is trying to keep growing at the same time as not jettisoning what made them special and popular in the first place,” Soult told the Big Issue.

“The industry is littered with companies that began as edgy upstarts but ended up becoming boring and ubiquitous.

“BrewDog is not at that point quite yet, but as it heads towards an IPO it needs a strategy where its ‘punk’ credentials are driven by the company’s people, purpose and values, rather than by the CEO’s angry posts on LinkedIn.”

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A 2021 BBC documentary opened the lid on allegations of BrewDog’s mistreatment of workers. The company apologised, then branded the programme a hatchet job, unsuccessfully complained to TV regulator Ofcom, and lost (the company says it relinquished) its B Corp status, a cask marque given to ethical firms. Workers also signed an open letter claiming a “culture of fear” within BrewDog.

A policy of paying the real living wage was abandoned in January 2024 amid cost-cutting as the company recorded a trading loss. Instead, new hires were placed on the national minimum wage. It was branded “outrageous” during “the most acute cost of living crisis in a generation” by a representative from Unite.

The rolling controversy takes a toll, Soult says: “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the high-profile allegations and bad press around BrewDog in recent years have damaged the brand, even though its products are still good and enjoyed by many people.”

BrewDog’s stunts often courted controversy, from chucking taxidermy cats out of a helicopter, all the way through to “Pink IPA”, a beer for girls, and an “anti-sponsorship” of the Qatar World Cup during which the firm’s beer was still sold in the middle eastern nation. Over the years, this sends a message to consumers, says Dr Amna Khan, a senior lecturer in consumer behaviour and retailing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Increasingly, this is a factor for shoppers.

“In BrewDog’s case some key actions, such as pay for staff, didn’t align with the way they had positioned their brand to consumers,” Khan says.

“Consumers are more aware of brand actions and they will take notice, as there has been a general shift in consumer sentiment – they are keen on understanding the brand’s purpose and this can influence their buying decision.”

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