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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 8 November 2009

Dog Jumps Shark*

I hate having to write two consecutive posts about Brew Dog, especially when the first one was a satirical post in which I took the piss out of myself more than anything else.

But last night James Watt ruined my mood for the fireworks with the announcement of his latest wheeze.

Tokyo* has, allegedly, been banned by the Portman Group. But it turns out the complaint that led to this ban came from James himself, in order to show up Portman for how ridiculous they are. James' Tweet explaining this simply said "lessons in marketing", and linked to the blog post about the story.

When Portman announced they were to investigate Brew Dog back in August, Brew Dog fans threw up their hands in horrified outrage. At the time, I said on their blog:

"Careful we don't all go for the wrong targets - if Portman have received a complaint they are obliged to investigate it - they are just doing their job. The substance of the complaint to me seems to be nonsense. If Portman uphold it, that is when to lay into them, because that would be a ridiculous decision. But if they throw it out, it could do loads to help get the right message about craft beers across."

So is now the time to slag off Portman? Well, from our point of view we'll always think they're overreacting a tad. But this morning I'm afraid it's Brew Dog who look like idiots. I wouldn't mind that so much - but I fear their antics have damaged the entire beer industry, and the worst thing is, they couldn't give a shit.

The thing is, Tokyo* hasn't been banned at all, as James claims it has. Portman have not objected to the beer; they've objected to some inflammatory wording on the label - wording it now seems was written with the sole intention of winding up the Portman Group in the first place, given the only person who has complained about it was the person who wrote it.

I could go on here to point out that we have to have regulatory bodies overseeing alcohol promotion, that every market in the world has such regulatory bodies, and that by international standards ours is not that bad. I could explain that we need such regulation in order to stop fly-by-night small businesses - usually hawking nasty spirits - from packaging their gutrot in a way that overtly appeals to children, or links drunkenness with sexual success.

I could explain that the alternative to bodies like the Portman Group is direct government regulation. I could point out that this would be much harsher than what we currently have, that there are lots of floating voters who don't like seeing drunk people in their nice middle class town centres, and that the Tory government-in-waiting - never known for their relaxed attitudes to people enjoying themselves - are murmuring about aggressively tightening restrictions on any beer over 5%, and that if they had direct control over alcohol regulation most of Brew Dog's beers, as well as 90% of the speciality beers we love, could actually become illegal.

I could point out that this stunt not only damages the credibility of the Portman Group - its avowed intention - but also gives perfect fuel to those who believe the alcohol industry cannot be trusted and needs to be more tightly controlled.

But there's no point. Because BrewDog James already knows and understands this perfectly, and he doesn't care.

James loves the Portman Group. They are central to his marketing strategy. This is how he promotes the Brew Dog name and gets column inches. The fact that he refers to the blog post as "lessons in marketing" tells us all we need to know about the real reason for this stunt, whatever mealy-mouthed justification is trotted out on the Brew Dog blog over the weekend. This is about self-promotion. It does nothing to further the debate about great craft beer. It does no service to drinkers and Brew Dog fans, who were as duped by this as anyone else.

I've worked in marketing and consultancy for 18 years, most of that in booze. And in that time I've met a lot of talented, headstrong 26 year-olds who think they know everything, who think they can stick it to the man and usher in a new wave of cool. Every single one of them falls flat on their arse, usually with wider damaging consequences. I know, because I was one.

"Lessons in marketing"? So this is how we should all behave, is it?

The craft beer industry needs gifted brewers like Martin Dickie. And it needs edgy, iconoclastic brands like Brew Dog. It needs conventions to be challenged, and it needs fresh ideas. But it needs schoolboy pranks like this one like it needs a hole in the head. There's no place in the craft beer world for someone who seeks publicity by winding up regulatory bodies just for the sake of it, sending an early Christmas present to neo-prohibitionist Op-Ed writers in the process.

What angers me the most is that even by writing this, I'm playing into James' strategy. It's what he wants. So let me state my opinion very clearly:

Brew Dog: either grow up, or get out.

My Equity for Punks prospectus has been refiled from 'to do' to 'recycling'.

*If you don't know, 'jumping the shark' is a phrase from the TV industry that refers to the episode when popular comedy Happy Days finally lost it and ran out of ideas, symbolised by Fonzie jumping over a shark on water skis.

20 comments:

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

‘the Tory government-in-waiting - never known for their relaxed attitudes to people enjoying themselves?’ er, Labour haven’t exactly been noted for their joyous attitudes to life have they?
As for BrewDog, it’s very much like the Henry Root letters from the 1980s, ‘Dear Prime Minister I wish to complain about the man next door, he plays his music too loud, can you send in the SAS’

James, BrewDog said...

Pete,

I accept your point on the tone of my tweet on this. I have subsequently deleted the tweet as it gives the wrong impression as to what this is about.

The Portman Group refuse to even look at drinks advertising as it is out with their remit. Yet this is where their funder companies spend their A&P budget. Leaving the Portman Group to feed on scraps like our beers and Dorothy Goodbody to be seen to be doing something to justify its own existence. Better education, sensible pricing and not insulting consumer intelligence is how we can tackle drink problems. The Portman Group were also critical of the minimum price per unit policy. Why? Because it would effect the profits of the companies who fund them yet this move would have done more to prevent binge drinking than anything they have power to do. We are small and have to be inventive to make our point, we felt this was the best way to show just how flawed the regime is.

I accept that what we have done here is bold, risky and unconventional. However underneath all this is a very valid point and one which I feel we had to make. Sometimes we do push things too far, granted. However we are not afriad to stand up for what we believe in.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Government-funded neo-prohibitionist scaremongerers Alcohol Concern would be a better target for some clever (and I emphasise clever) poking with a pointy stick.

Pete said...

James, not sure what point you're making about advertising - as you say, it's outside their remit. I guess from your PoV it must look harsh that you get hassle form them but you are judged in exactly the same way as the big boys - you are not being singled out or persecuted in any way. And the point is, advertising is judged by Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. And if you don't like Portman, you should count yourself lucky you don't have to deal with them, like the big boys and their long-suffering agencies do on a daily basis.

You seem to object to the very existence of a regulatory body which I can never agree with. And Dorothy Goodbody was very different - someone complained. that someone is clearly a fuckwit. Portman were OBLIGED to investigate - it's what they are paid to do. And they did not uphold that complaint - thereby proving they're not the vindictive anti-small brewer body you claim to think they are.

Pete said...

Adrian - Labour have let all us down with their nannyism. But they've never gone as far as the Tories did with their war on rave culture. Outlawing "music with repetitive beats" - remember that?

Curmudgeon said...

But NuLabour's nannying has spread far more widely through society than anything the Tories ever did.

And there is nothing in their policies to remotely suggest they are planning to outlaw beers and ciders over 5%. Yes, they have proposed an ill-considered tripling of duty on beers and ciders above 5.5%, but I can foresee that running into the sand once it becomes clear that it is overwhelmingly quality craft products that are affected.

Zak said...

Well said, Pete.

It's also worth pointing out that the Portman Group is not in a position to ban anything. It enforces its rulings through the local authority licensing department, suggesting that anyone stocking a product against which they have ruled may not be acting responsibly. In turn, this may trigger a review of the premises licence, potentially invoking a fine, suspension or, in extremis, revocation of the licence. in summary, it's the person selling it that is liable to take the hit, not the producer.

James, BrewDog said...

Pete,

the initial Portman action against BrewDog (which concerned Punk IPA, Hop Rocker and Rip Tide - see http://www.brewdog.com/news.php?id=51 ) did not come from the public but were all self generated by The Portman Group. This shows just how flawed the whole thing is.

Our ultimate goal is to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. We want to introduce as many people as possible to how amazing proper beer is. Now to do this we sometimes need to do something bold and take a risk, sometimes we may go far. When you are pushing things you never quite know where the boundary is until you cross it. I accept your criticism of what we may take for this and value evryone's opinion. However if this generates some publicity, as well as highlighting how pathetic the Portman Group actually are it may spark an interest in craft beer. And it may make some people aware that there are actually alternatives to the liquid cardboard produced by faceless corporate monstrosities.

Now surely that is good for everyone. I do not think craft beer in the UK is going to break out truly without being a bit risqué to raise its profile initially. Our aim with this, as always, is to get more people drinking great beer.

John Clarke said...

Pete,

I felt there was real, well anger almost, in your posting. Certainly frustration at Brew Dog and their antics. Certainly they make some good beers but I am beginning to wonder where all this is going to end.

I have posted elsewhere that I get the sense they may be starting to belive their own publicity. At the very least this over the top self-promotion, which as you point out could have damaging consequences, is starting to grate a little. Why can't they just concentrate on making great beer and let that speak for itself? Or am I being too simplistic there?

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

it wasn’t about outlawing the music, it was more about stopping the raves which is a different matter. But hey ho it was all a long time ago…

James, BrewDog said...

Guys,
thanks for all the comments and opinions, I value all your feedback and have taken this on board.
Maybe we did push things a little far here. We walk a fine line pretty much all of the time so it is inevitable that we may sometimes cross it. But my point is that only by pushing things, challenging convention and undermining pointless institutions that craft beer can break through in the UK.
The Portman Group have great influence. For them to dismiss the minimum price per unit proposals was disgusting. This move would do more to prevent binge drinking then anything they can do yet they dismissed it as it would affect the profits of their funders. This move would also promote craft beer as it would go some way to levelling the playing field pricewise between craft beer and industrial brews.
They are a thinly veiled cartel who do all they can to protect the interest of the corporate brewers.
Look at this rubbish from them:
http://www.portman-group.org.uk/assets/documents/Alcohol%20Concern%20event%20-%20May%2009.pdf

He contradicts himself badly at the end. This legislation would be precisely to stop alcohol being sold at a loss.
I would also note that we were the first company to publically back these proposals from The Scottish Government.

James, BrewDog said...

My take on The Portman Group and what they apparently stand for:
http://www.brewdog.com/blog-article.php?id=69

Maaaaaaaaf. said...

At some point, the BrewDog style of marketing was going to jump the shark. It runs on that fine line of what is deemed acceptable behaviour for a trading company, but could easily tip over into mishitting. I wondered if the Equity For Punks thing had just gone over my head and I was somehow missing an important detail in "the incredible and ground-breaking announcement". After the cool-off period, I think we can all see it for what it is now. Whatever that may be.

As an aside, wasn't SKYY Vodka the brand that made a mint from selling what was essentially rebadged, Brita-filtered trampjuice-grade vodka to frequenters of places akin to the Beetham Tower? If so, isn't that the exact opposite of what BrewDog offer?

Curmudgeon said...

I am very disappointed to see James supporting minimum pricing. This is an arrogant, snobbish "screw-the-poor" policy that will do nothing to reduce problem drinking and will lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. The vast majority of alcohol bought at low prices is purchased by the less well off in society for normal everyday consumption, not by problem drinkers. Buying a £4 bottle of wine does not make me an alcoholic tramp.

Michael Smarte said...

My question is, did James copy and paste his replies to this post from the replies on Pencil and Spoon or vice versa?

Tyson said...

Oh dear. Looks like the worm has turned. Or should that be the dog? Perhaps it's a good thing that such a silly stunt has made some bloggers remove their rose-tinted specs. We all know they brew some good beers, but they seem like a publicity hungry machine out of control.

I'm also disappointed, but not surprised, that they support minimum pricing. It's the kind of inverse snobbery that they would condone.

StringersBeer said...

Skyy? Lots of skyy adverts here. Classy.

Anonymous said...

I love Brewdog beer, but I have in the past questioned their antics - ie. naming a beer "speedball", although on some points, I have felt that perhaps they were being judged too harshly by The Portman Group.
However, this publicity stunt, or dig at The Portman Group, or whatever it might be, was certainly a little too far in my opinion.
I certainly think that we need governing bodies such as The Portman Group, and I do think that they have perhaps been a bit harsh with Brewdog in the past - but surely in times past they've wanted to draw the attention to themselves - like I mentioned, with Speedball - and they've wanted to do this with Tokyo.
Certainly, it draws attention to Brewdog, and yes, it is cheap marketing - but what happens when it goes TOO far, TOO often. Will Brewdog be banned in the shops? Will retailers be too scared to stock it in case it gets banned AFTER they've bought a large amount of it to sell to the public?
We all know that they can make good beer, and that they can market and advertise cheaply through their unconventional way of grabbing headlines. But unfortunately, these are sometimes ill-calculated, in my mind.

Tom C said...

James from Brewdog said:

"Our ultimate goal is to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are."

Ehhhh, I *believe* your ultimate goal is to sell beer?

Not meaning to fan the flames of this really, but on the forums I run at wine-, beer- and whisky-pages spammers who join up to flog their wares are given short shrift by the community. 9 out of 10 use the excuse of "trying to share their passion for xxxx," when everybody knows they are really just trying to flog something.

I'm sure you do believe passionately in great craft beers, but to say your ultimate goal is spreading the word in a generic sense - as opposed to a BrewDog sense - is disingenuous.

Dave J said...

Tom C said;

"Ehhhh, I *believe* your ultimate goal is to sell beer? "

Almost there, shouldn't it be; your ultimate goal is to make money by selling beer?

Nothing wrong with that of course, just don't bite the hand that feeds you.