Many advertisers are still nervously reading the room before launching their World Cup 2022 campaigns. While past iterations of the tournament have seen a frenzy of advertising activity that aimed to leverage consumer engagement in any way possible, this year brands have been decidedly muted in the run up to the event's November kickoff.
They have good reason to be cautious.
FIFA's choice of host for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, has attracted vocal criticism since being announced back in 2010. The nation’s human rights record, concerns over the safety of LGBTQIA+ players and fans, and allegations of corruption are just some of the factors that have contributed to a more cautious response from brands.
But the controversy-courting craft beer brand Brewdog in typical fashion, marked itself out from the crowd with a loud, brash campaign that announces itself as an “anti-sponsor” of the 2022 World Cup. It’s not the first time that one of their campaigns has grabbed headlines, indeed, the brand is one that regularly gets people talking — earning a mixture of admiration and ire from consumers and commentators alike (this very article is a perfect example!)
But is Brewdog’s latest campaign an own goal or a scorcher? Let’s take a look!
The anti-sponsor campaign certainly wades head-on into the debate that surrounds the 2022 World Cup. Led by huge, attention-grabbing OOH ads and supported by social media, as well as a new masthead on the brand’s website. Brewdog places itself in firm opposition to a divisive World Cup, by using ad creatives that feature bold black messages on a simple white background, each taking shots at the stained reputation of both FIFA and Qatar.
“FIRST RUSSIA, THEN QATAR. CAN’T WAIT FOR NORTH KOREA”
“THE BEAUTIFUL SHAME”
“EAT, SLEEP, BRIBE, FOOTBALL”
While other brands have decided to stay silent on the issue, it appears that Brewdog is making a principled move against the World Cup. Only there’s a catch.
Rather than boycotting the tournament completely, Brewdog will still screen games in its pubs and has actively promoted “Brewdog Fanzones”. So while the ad creative is certainly attention-grabbing, it also oversells and obscures the main message at the heart of the campaign.
Digging a little deeper on the Brewdog website, a clearer explanation of the campaign’s goals and motivations can be found:
“It might be a World F*Cup – but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the ACTUAL on-pitch action. So come watch the live games at ours, the official Anti-Sponsors. Big screen, big atmosphere. And with all profits from our Lost Lager going to fight human rights abuses, it's the perfect place to show your love for the game… and your anger at who happens to be hosting it.”
The huge, confrontational statements displayed in its OOH ads make a huge impression, but they arguably undermine the core message of the campaign, making anything other than a complete boycott appear hypocritical. So, it’s no surprise that the brand’s campaign has received its fair share of criticism, particularly on Twitter and Linkedin.
It isn’t the first time that Brewdog has been accused of shallow stunts — much of its history has been defined by them — but the brand’s reputation is much more vulnerable after a serious scandal shook the business last year.
An open letter written in early 2021 by a “group of former workers called Punks with Purpose” accused the company’s chief executive James Watt of “creating a ‘toxic’ environment.” The scandal saw the brewer invest £9 million to try and fix its “culture problem” while a rebrand tried to soften Brewdog’s identity to one that focused on inclusivity and good causes. That same year, Brewdog became a certified B-Corp after it “shifted to a community ownership model”, removed plastic from its supply chain, “invested heavily in renewable energy”, and became the “world’s first carbon-negative brewery.”
But despite these moves, many social media responses to the brand’s anti-sponsor campaign pointed to the 2021 scandal as a sign of the company’s hypocrisy. Bryan Simpson, from the British union organization, Unite, said:
“The treatment of workers in Qatar is an international scandal but Brewdog have a cheek saying anything about workers’ rights when hundreds of their own workers (past and present) signed an open letter detailing a ‘culture of fear’ with workers demanding an apology for ‘harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting or gaslighting them.”
Of course, it must be assumed that Brewdog and Saatchi & Saatchi — the ad agency behind this campaign — anticipated this reaction and decided ultimately that being at the center of yet another heated discussion was good for their brand.
They wouldn’t be at fault for making this assumption. Despite the reputational damage wrought by the 2021 scandal, Brewdog experienced healthy growth that year, with revenues up by 21% against the previous year — to levels that even outsize its performance from before the pandemic.
So while commentators on social media may not hide their distaste for the Scottish beer brand and its campaigns, and industry insiders are well informed of its shortcomings, it appears that the outrage that circulates on these channels has done little to stymie the brand’s growth.
Whether beer drinkers are ultimately unconcerned with the criticisms leveled at Brewdog is yet to be confirmed but it appears that the rebel brewer has found a way to grow, even if it continues to upset those consumers who share their views on social media.
It’s still too early to tell whether Brewdog’s campaign will see them to victory or result in a red card — but like a streaker running onto the pitch to interrupt play, one thing is clear — for the moment, all eyes are on them.
Main image credit: BrewDog