How to break out with a marketing budget of zero

A story the media couldn't ignore

In our inaugural column, we introduced the idea that constraints and limitations--far from being a handicap to growth--can be the very stimulus we need to find breakthrough solutions. Often those solutions are better than the ideas produced by competitors seemingly blessed with plenty.

BrewDog is a great example. In 2013, the company’s craft beers became the United Kingdom’s fastest growing packaged-goods brand--a feat achieved without benefit of a marketing budget. Co-founder James Watt wanted to publicize his own over-the-top passion for the product, but he could not afford the TV ads on which his mainstream competitors spent lavishly. What BrewDog needed, Watt understood, was free media attention.

His solution: launch a series of beers with such provocative themes that no one could ignore them. Tactical Nuclear Penguin--promoted as the world’s strongest beer--ignited a media firestorm when Watt audaciously suggested it would end binge drinking in the United Kingdom because no one could drink more than one. Never Mind the Anabolics (an arch nod to the Sex Pistols) contained substances banned in sports: BrewDog released it just in time for the 2012 Olympics in London. The End of History came in a bottle stuffed inside a dead squirrel.

BrewDog was rarely out of the news, which gave Watt the platform for his real message: there is an alternative to the “mainstream, industrial, monolithic, insipid, bland, tasteless, apathetic” beers. Beer lovers could seek out that alternative at one of BrewDog’s bars or at stores across the country.

BrewDog wasn’t just short on money for marketing: it was short on money, period. In 2008 banks stopped lending just as the business needed to fund new brewing capacity. Once again, Watt saw the upside to a lack of resources. He created a program called Equity For Punks that offered fans the opportunity to become shareholders. That tactic not only funded growth, it also drew customers deeper into the BrewDog pack, engendering customer loyalty no bank loan could provide.

Over the past two years BrewDog has grown by double digits to $50 million in revenues. It is in five countries and owns 25 bars in addition to off-premise distribution. Watt and his co-founder, Martin Dickie, have raised money three times from their devoted Punks, with the last round netting almost $8 million. Four thousand shareholders turn up for BrewDog’s annual general meeting. That’s a lot of love for an in-your-face company.

Lessons from BrewDog:

Use drama and surprise: Not every company will benefit from the kind of controversy courted by BrewDog. But, for better or worse, we live in a TMZ/Reddit world where being dull is the greatest sin. If your marketing initiatives don’t intrigue the media, then what’s the point? As Watt says, “playing it safe is the riskiest strategy of all.”

Create shared agendas: Watt’s outrageous products and pugnacious marketing drew attention to the parlous state of the beer market in the United Kingdom. His customers shared both his passion and his indignation, so they were primed to join forces and make the world safe for craft-beer lovers. People who share your goals may be willing to provide the resources you lack, be they money, skills, or distribution. All you need is the kind of mutually beneficial hustle that BrewDog excels at.

Would BrewDog be as successful if it had enjoyed large coffers at launch? Probably not. With no need to develop the attitude and edginess that distinguish the brand or to partner with customers in the war against insipid beer, it would likely have stayed part of the crowd. In the weeks ahead we will explore more ways to create abundance from very little. To get your own creative juices flowing, we recommend hoisting a Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

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