BrewDog's brand virtue signalling and the problem with purpose washing


BrewDog’s anti-sponsor campaign for the World Cup speaks to a wider problem with brand virtue signalling.

8th Dec 2022

We’re in a trust crisis. As consumers foster a growing skepticism about brand purpose, the stakes have never been higher for brands to keep authenticity at the core of their initiatives. 

At Bulbshare, we know our communities are sporting the same mistrust. 94% of Bulbshare’s global customer community say that authenticity matters in branding - but over 1 in 10 say brands don’t care about their missions as much as they say they do and 71% think purpose initiatives are just a route to profit. 

This research takes on new meaning against the recent news that BrewDog has lost its BCorp status - just two years after joining the coveted scheme - due to workers alleging a ‘culture of fear’. BCorp status is a stamp of ethical credibility concerning one’s environment, community, and staff. It’s a beacon of brand purpose that requires painstaking appraisal to achieve - so is even more conspicuous by its absence. 

So, how has the punk brewery fallen from its moral high ground to ignominy in such a short space of time? As always - pride comes before the fall.

BrewDog has been at the nucleus of controversy after it flouted claims of being ‘the proud anti-sponsor’ of the World Cup. In November, the brewer unveiled the punchy campaign created by Saatchi & Saatchi London, sardonic in tone and epic in scale. "First Russia, then Qatar. Can’t wait for North Korea," the billboards read in capital letters. 

And their sentiment was echoed by a chorus of football fans and commentators, who agreed the ethical violations by Qatar could simply not be overlooked. 56% of the Bulbshare insight community say the tournament should never have been hosted there (though 44% felt differently), and 39% reacted with anger over the endorsement of a country that criminalises homosexuality. Similarly, pundit Roy Keane exclaimed: "The World Cup shouldn’t be here, it shouldn’t be here".

But Roy Keane is still there. Consumers are still watching. And BrewDog still signed a distribution deal with Qatar. In fact, despite 56% saying they disagree with Qatar as the host of the World Cup, 59% are still watching. 

Though 39% feel angry about the host country, another 30% feel sympathetic. An alternative viewpoint offered by this third of consumers is that it’s important to respect cultural differences and not enforce Western values. The rest? Staying out of it. Which is perhaps what BrewDog wishes they did.

According to the Bulbshare community, 21% think brands should ‘sell’ not ‘tell - they want to be sold services and products without an accompanying sermon. However, 18% vehemently disagree - brands should tell even more than sell. And, most importantly, 56% think brands should educate and inspire, as well as going about business as usual. 

In 2021, 79% of consumers told Bulbshare that brands should be involved in social causes. In 2022, and going into 2023, 84% said a brand’s reputation is improved by having a strong purpose. In fact, 78% are more inclined to shop with a brand with a meaningful mission. So much so, 78% feel more loyal to them.

However, 52% of the consumer community say they think less of a brand if their purpose initiative backfires, whilst the remaining 48% say ‘well, at least they tried’.

The role of the modern brand is a complex one. Reputation is everything - but it’s also precarious. To not express distaste at the tournament has understandably seen backlash by the LGBTQIA+ community questioning whether the brands that say they are allies during Pride month are just using the community as a temporary marketing ploy. But to express distaste at the tournament, as we’ve seen with BrewDog, can be equally corrosive to reputation. 

This brings us back to the initial statistic. 94% of Bulbshare’s customer community say that authenticity matters in branding. 

Maybe it’s just that simple. Do as you say, say as you do.


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