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A volunteer pours beer during a tasting session at the Great British Beer Festival in London, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
A volunteer pours beer during a tasting session at the Great British Beer Festival in London, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

Cheeky Scottish beer maker tells regulator where to go Add to ...

Small Scottish beer maker BrewDog PLC has advertised its product in the past by smashing bottles of mainstream brands such as Stella Artois and Beck’s with a golf club, and by hiring a taxidermist to package a limited-edition, 55-per-cent-alcohol ale inside of dead stoats, a relative of the weasel. Suffice it to say, the folks that regulate alcohol marketing in Britain are not the brand’s biggest fans.

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And as a startup building its branding identity on an image of rebellion against mainstream beers, that plays right into BrewDog’s hands.

So when the industry’s self-regulatory agency the Portman Group banned the sale of BrewDog’s Dead Pony Club ale on Monday, saying it had broken Britain’s alcohol marketing rules, the craft brewer and owner of a handful of pubs publicly and gleefully responded by telling the Portman Group to get bent.

In a classic “sorry not sorry” apology, posted to the company’s website, it called regulators “a gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths,” and mocked their “grubby newspeak” – a reference to the language of the totalitarian state in the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Portman Group is the creation of Britain’s biggest alcohol companies, and regulates the industry through a code of practices, with government support. It does not regulate advertising, but when packaging or other marketing causes a complaint, the group asks an independent review panel to examine the complaint based on the code’s rules.

Retailers also sign on to the regulatory structure, and if a brand is found to be in violation, they agree to pull the offending product from shelves – until and unless the brands bring their marketing in line. Roughly 140 products have met this fate since 1989, when the Portman Group was established.

That was the recommendation it made for Dead Pony Club ale in a bulletin to retailers. Its objections had to do with two elements of the packaging. First, the line “rip it up down empty streets” was considered to be encouraging “anti-social behaviour.” In addition, the lines “drink fast, live fast” and “we believe faster is better” were found in breach of code practices because they “urged the consumer to drink rapidly.”

“Some might see it as a bit persnickety,” Portman Group public affairs manager Dominic Rustecki said in an interview. “But we’re not here to discourage innovative or humorous marketing.”

Rather, he said, the industry has an interest in taking responsibility for the way it speaks to consumers. Producers cannot be seen to be marketing themselves to children, for example, encouraging “violent, aggressive, dangerous or anti-social behaviour,” or associating drinking alcohol with social or sexual success. Because of issues of overconsumption, the code also frowns on any packaging or promotion that encourages drinking fast, or downing a drink in a single shot.

This is not the first time BrewDog has come under fire for violating those rules.

In 2009, for example, it brewed a beer with 18.2 per cent alcohol. Its label included the message: “Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. What logically follows is that you must, from time, [sic] have excess.” BrewDog was found in breach for failing to “promote a positive message of safe and responsible drinking.”

BrewDog agreed to change its packaging, according to the Portman Group, but also grumbled to the BBC at the time that “brands selling 24 cans of lager for £7” were perhaps more to blame for excessive drinking than a craft brew sold on its website and at specialist beer retailers.

“BrewDog has a history of this kind of thing,” Mr. Rustecki said of the company’s snarky response to the latest censure.

Depending on the demographic they want to reach, brands can sometimes benefit from appearing edgy or rebellious, Alan Middleton, a marketing professor with York University’s Schulich School of Business, said.

“The U.K. likes rebel brands, especially in the beer market,” he said, noting the Campaign for Real Ale that since 1971 has supported local pubs and “traditional, flavourful” beers in protest to what it saw as low quality and weak taste of mainstream brands.

However he pointed out that while a rebellious image works best for startups, it is not often a good long-term marketing strategy for bigger brands, especially in Canada.

“There is pressure for niceness,” he said, as stereotypical as it sounds. “Tim Hortons hitting its 50th year? That was not based on being a rebel.”

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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