By Simon Halewood

Netflix decided I’d had enough socialising for 2018, and added all 10 seasons of sitcom Friends last month. The reason I mention this is that the PR crisis that BrewDog walked itself into this week reminded me very much of the show’s Chandler Bing.

Socially awkward Chandler simply couldn’t do “real talk” with his friends, family, work colleagues or anyone. What Chandler brought to the (coffee) table was sarcasm, and lots of it!

Some of his relentless jokes landed and some didn’t. But the character got away with insulting his friends day-in day-out for 10 years because we knew every joke was born out of affection, and, more often than not the joke was on him.

What got me thinking about when sarcasm does and doesn’t work, was the latest Twitter row provoked by BrewDog – the Scottish brewer with previous for courting controversy with its PR and marketing – and its bid to mark International Women’s Day. Somehow, it turned into a crisis management situation.

On the long list headed, “Times Gender-specific Retail Marketing Went Wrong”, its latest provocation followed Doritos announcing “lady-friendly” tortilla chips that make less crunch. There’s a whole lesson in reputation management to be had right there.

And BrewDog’s brouhaha came on the day the “pink tax” hit the headlines. Because it’s only fair that a jacket or roller-boots in pink should cost more than an identical product in blue. 

BrewDog unveiled Pink IPA, a beer whose bright pink packaging states it is “Beer for Girls”, on Tuesday. The internet, not unpredictably, erupted. I imagine Yorkie chocolate’s marketing team, who pulled off a similar and better stunt 20 years ago, had a sense of déjà vu.

Like any good joke, BrewDog’s had to be explained in a 900-plus-word press release. It said: “Independent craft brewer BrewDog is taking on the global scourge of gender pay inequality and combating sexist marketing with the launch of a ‘new’ beer: Pink IPA.

“BrewDog will be using its most iconic beer, Punk IPA, as a weapon in this fight, packaging it in lurid pink and renaming to Pink IPA – a send-up of the lazy marketing efforts targeting the female market.

“The brewer will also be serving the beer at 20 per cent cheaper in BrewDog bars to those who identify as women. With the product being identical to the blue-branded Punk IPA, the brewer intends to trigger questions about why women continue to earn less than their male counterparts, and offer them a discount on the beer equivalent to the gender pay gap.”

BrewDog did explain: “For four weeks from today, BrewDog will be donating 20 per cent (the gender pay gap in the UK) of its proceeds from bottled Pink IPA and Punk IPA to causes that fight against gender inequality.”

Those causes include Women’s Engineering Society (WES), a charity and a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists that inspire and support girls and women to achieve their potential as engineers, applied scientists and technical leaders. 

A fine cause indeed. The issue being that it’s buried in a press release longer than a supermarket beer aisle.

On the face of it, Pink IPA does nothing but underline the stereotypes it claims to challenge, and while donations to causes are admirable, BrewDog will still profit from selling the product – so perhaps the furore was the goal.

Quite simply, every single one of the positive messages Brewdog claims to want to share with this launch has been lost, under a poorly executed piece of “satire” that leaves nothing but a bad taste in the mouth and a PR crisis management plan in full swing.

My colleague Fflur Sheppard, a self-proclaimed Monica Geller who never shies from a heated debate, disagrees with me, however.

She reckons that intentionally ironic pink labels and “beer for girls” tag line worked because they got people talking about the gender pay gap and cheap marketing tactics ahead of International Women’s Day. 

But, Fflur says, it would have been better if they’d worked with a partner and an ambassador – she’d have gone for gender equality campaigners the Fawcett Society and a celebrity like Emma Watson or Suranne Jones. That, she believes, could have staved off some of the criticism BrewDog received from people who don’t get the sarcasm.

The sad thing is, we’re having a back and forth about pink beer labels when a brand synonymous with the colour – Barbie – took a great step forward for equality and inclusivity this week. Mattel unveiled the latest doll in its “Sheroes” range, a model of two-time Olympic boxing champ Nicola Adams.

Even here of course, there is still progress to be made. There have quite rightly been questions over why Adams’s doll don’t better represent the realistic physique of the Olympic champion. 

For me, the concept of a beer – already enjoyed by both sexes – being used to champion diversity and raise funds for valuable causes really is an admirable idea.

But I’d suggest BrewDog stick to what they are good at. After all, it was Chandler who famously quipped: “I’m not great at the advice. Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”

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