The chief executive of BrewDog has paid out more than €500,000 from his own pocket to winners of a bungled “solid gold” beer can promotion that he has admitted made the controversial brewer look “dishonest and disingenuous”.
James Watt says he got so carried away with the Willy Wonka-inspired promotion, which hid 50 gold cans in cases of the Scottish brewery’s craft beer, that he made some “costly mistakes” that misled treasure hunters.
He says he mistakenly believed the cans were made of solid gold – they were in fact made mostly of brass and only plated with the precious metal – which the UK advertising regulator later said would have meant they were actually worth £363,000, or about €410,000, each.
“The initial tweets I sent out told customers of the prospect of finding ‘solid gold cans’,” Mr Watt wrote on LinkedIn, claiming each one was still worth £15,000. “It was a silly mistake. Things started to go wrong when the winners got their cans.”
A number of the winners contacted the Advertising Standards Authority, which regulates advertising and marketing in the UK, complaining that the “solid gold” claim was misleading.
The authority subsequently upheld the complaints about the marketing, with the false claim appearing in three of 50 promotional tweets, according to Mr Watt.
“Those three tweets were enough to do a lot of damage,” he says. “It blew up into a media storm. The gold can saga was headline news. The campaign launch morphed into a frenzy, with attacks coming in from all quarters. It got pretty grim. I should have been more careful.”
Mr Watt admits that his initial tweets were misleading and that the company “deserved the flak”. “We were made to look dishonest and disingenuous and took a real hammering.”
The chief executive says he went on to contact all 50 winners to offer them the “full cash amount” as an alternative if they were unhappy with the original prize of keeping the can and receiving £15,000, or about €17,000, in BrewDog shares.
“All in all, it ended up costing me around £470,000 – well over two and a half years’ salary,” says Mr Watt, who adds that he now owns 40 of the gold cans.
BrewDog has previously been criticised for its marketing practices and workplace culture.
In 2021 it apologised to former employees who had accused Mr Watt and his company of fostering a “culture of fear” in which workers were bullied and “treated like objects”.
Last month the brewer lost its status as a B Corp, less than two years after joining the scheme, which offers certification of a company’s ethical commitment to the environment, community and staff.
BrewDog, which was recently accused of hypocrisy for running a World Cup ad campaign highlighting Qatar’s poor human-rights record despite being criticised by the Unite Hospitality union for the treatment of its own workers, achieved B Corp status in February 2021.