May 14, 2012 8:40 pm

A set-to as old as the Old Testament

BrewDog v Diageo: a PR battle in the old tradition

Last Thursday I was, briefly, head of communications for a large Canadian widget maker, coping with a wave of Twitter-borne rumours about the arrest of its chief executive.

It was a simulation – in fact, it was a simulation of a simulation: the sort of virtual exercise PR companies put their clients through to prepare them for bad news breaking out on social, online media.

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Andrew Hill

But while I was enjoying “no-commenting” to fictitious journalists using Weber Shandwick’s FireBell tool, a real five-alarm social media inferno was raging at Diageo. A day earlier, BrewDog, an independent brewery, had blogged about the big drinks company’s efforts to stop it receiving the accolade of “bar operator of the year” by threatening to withdraw sponsorship from future awards ceremonies. Amplified through Twitter, Facebook and other online media, at one point on Wednesday the story was “trending globally” – the sort of situation that multinationals’ communications and brand chiefs have learnt to fear.

Many people have described this as the model of a modern media relations crisis. In what other age would skulduggery at a Glasgow awards ceremony have generated bad publicity from Chile to China? But what is instructive about BrewDog v Diageo is how traditional the media tactics, many of the tools and even the stand-off itself turned out to be.

First, the tactics. If the world were truly dominated by online social media, the fact that a trophy already engraved with BrewDog’s name had gone to a rival would have started circulating on the Sunday night, straight after the ceremony. But it didn’t, because BrewDog saw the value in taking a few days to build a multimedia campaign around Diageo’s shameful attempt to throw its weight around. It was opportunistic, but it was also considered. In fact, it was what you would expect from a company that, for all its “punk” image, has proved expert at aggressive self-publicity, from brewing “the world’s strongest beer” to driving a tank through London to promote a new bar.

Second, the tools. Diageo should, by rights, have been forewarned by a contrite employee on Monday morning. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t alerted by a jump in unpleasant references to the company on Twitter, either. The multinational’s press office first heard about the problem when it was called by journalists three days later, after they received a BrewDog press release pointing to the company’s blog.

The story may have spread faster and further than it would have pre-internet but, bar a few tweets by the two parties, the use of a witty Twitter hashtag – #AndTheWinnerIsNot – by BrewDog, and some online monitoring of the public reaction by Diageo, it played out as old-fashioned scandals always have. A Diageo apology aimed to damp the fire on Wednesday; a flurry of mainstream media stories stoked it on Thursday; and analysts and commentators will rake over the coals until they go cold.

Finally, the stand-off itself. Diageo prides itself on its social media savvy. Recently, a rather smug Diageo marketing man told a conference of advertisers that size matters online. “We figured it takes a community of a million on a brand to even start paying back on a social platform,” said Philip Gladman, the group’s head of white spirits marketing for western Europe.

He’s right in principle. As he noted, Procter & Gamble had to spend millions to turn its Old Spice “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign viral. But it’s sometimes wrong in practice. BrewDog, with annual turnover of £10m, a thousandth of Diageo’s, may look outmatched. But since before an Old Testament teenager smote a Philistine giant, champions have had to worry about the ability of smaller challengers to use speed and agility to exploit their mistakes.

In the 1980s, Ben & Jerry’s took on Häagen-Dazs ice-cream, then owned by Pillsbury, with its famous Doughboy character. At the height of a set-to over access to freezer space, Jerry Greenfield, one of the founders, picketed Pillsbury’s headquarters with a placard reading “What’s the Doughboy afraid of?” The grass-roots protest helped force a settlement and fuelled the growth of the tiny upstart’s product and profile.

BrewDog’s brilliant shaming of its bigger rival, for all its online firebells and whistles, has more in common with that pre-internet campaign than most digital marketing punks want to admit.

andrew.hill@ft.com

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