You know the “punk” brand, you’ve probably tasted the beer, but most importantly, you’ve seen the marketing. BrewDog are the $2bn company that had a sign up outside their east London bar in 2016 saying “hipsters must be accompanied by an adult”, long after the word went out of use.
On Thursday, former employees – many of them women – published an open letter on Twitter accusing the company of creating a “culture of fear” at the company, with allegations of over-work, exploitation and bullying and a “cult of personality” built around its founders James Watt and Martin Dickie.
Although the letter is signed by 61 people using their full name or initials, a further 45 and counting former staff members were too scared to attach their name to the letter.
In a direct address to Watt, the letter stated: “By valuing growth, speed and action above all else, your company has achieved incredible things, but at the expense of those who delivered your dreams. In the wake of your success are people left burnt out, afraid and miserable.”
Watt has shared a statement on Twitter, in which he says they will make no excuses but will make changes at the company. In a statement to VICE, Watt admits that “the tweet we saw… proves that on many occasions we haven’t got it right” and “we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more”.
Far from being as punk as its marketing suggests, these new allegations suggest internal practices as bad as any big corporation. “Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy,” the group of ex-BrewDog employees state.
The origin story, in short: Two middle class lads from school bonded over a love of beer. They were sick of the insipid “beer” offered by the big brands and started brewing their own. After realising what they were making tasted pretty good, they quit their day jobs and began building the empire. But good beer simply wasn’t enough. Fast forward a few years and it was time to hone their MO: controversial stunt marketing.
They announced the launch of The BrewDog Network, a TV channel/subscription service about the beer and drinks industry that satirised a porn website. The channel featured parodies of porno titles such as Nerdy Brunette Loves Big Cocktails and Jungle Fevre (a play on “jungle fever”, a racist term referring to interracial couples). In 2015, the founders dressed up in drag and posed as sex workers and homeless people in a video for funding (“Don’t Make Us Do This…”) that was subsequently criticised for transphobia.
As something of an apology the year after, they made a “No Label” beer with a rainbow label – “the world’s first non-binary transgender beer” – which we can agree sounds like something conjured up by a man who hasn’t quite memorised the order of the letters in LGBTQ. In 2018, BrewDog was back again with a “Beer for girls” that, as soon as it got criticised, was made out to be an ironic comment.
Accusations from those who have been burned by BrewDog have been stacking up for years. In March 2017, a music promoter accused it of intimidation after it threatened legal action against him for opening a bar with the word “punk” in its name. (BrewDog did not comment at the time, but it blamed “trigger-happy lawyers” in a similar dispute with a pub that shared the name of a BrewDog product.)
In August 2018, the company was forced to make a payout to a former employee who says he was sacked after learning from specialists that he was about to be declared blind.
In May 2019, London creative agency, and their longtime collaborator, said their idea for a “Punk AF” low-alcohol beer was then executed by another agency when they were taken off the job. (BrewDog founder James Watt responded to the claim on Twitter, saying that the beer was created in collaboration with another agency.)
The new allegations of company culture are shocking, but not surprising given the BrewDog’s history over the past decade.
Among other allegations, the letter also claims that some of the PR stunts didn’t even happen, and the company would “simply move on to the next campaign” if “anyone questions the validity of your claims”.
“You spent years claiming you wanted to be the best employer in the world,” its former employees state, “presumably to help you to recruit top talent, but ask former staff what they think of those claims, and you’ll most likely be laughed at. Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.”