Craft beer giant BrewDog has created a new beer just ahead of International Women’s Day on Thursday 8 March. Its name? Pink IPA. Its target market? Women. Well, actually, according to its label, “girls.” On the face of it, this looks like a stupid, tone-deaf campaign, not least as the debunking of reductive corporate representations of femininity and mistreatment of women continues to be spotlighted in the mainstream. And yet, the brand claims that a reckoning with gender inequality is the very essence of this beer’s “sarcastic” positioning.
Ostensibly, the Pink IPA launch is aimed at combatting the gender pay gap; “Pink IPA might look different on the outside, but it’s exactly the same on the inside” reads BrewDog’s announcement, “just like the female workforce.” Indeed, the beer inside the pink-branded bottle is exactly the same as the brand’s signature Punk IPA, on which the new name attempts to riff. In “putting their money where their mouth is,” the company is donating 20% of proceeds from the next four weeks’ sales of Pink — and Punk — IPAs to charities supporting gender equality in the workplace (the 20% figure represents the current gender pay gap). Global head of marketing for BrewDog, Sarah Warman, notes a disproportionate lack of representation of women in the craft beer industry, and explains that “with Pink IPA we are hoping to welcome more people who identify as female into craft beer.”
And yet, the grand irony is that in a “sarcastic” bid to raise awareness about the gender pay gap, and to harness the attention of a reinvigorated debate about women’s rights, this beer company has created a product that subscribes to precise definitions of sexism — where women are alleged to “like pink and glitter, right?” Far from “rejecting sexist marketing and fighting societal stereotypes that push women away from spaces where beer is enjoyed,” BrewDog, as have done so many before them, instead created a product so lazy that it unwittingly relies on the same old tropes it purports to “satirise.”
In short, BrewDog felt emboldened to release what is a perfectly packaged symbol of sexism that it, as brand, is at liberty to simultaneously call out as sexist. Were there really no alternatives methods, or colours, or straplines that could have been used to articulate such an important message?
What’s more, the very nature of satire means it must work harder than to merely claim it is satirical. The fact the brand had to issue its own accompanying clarification — hashtag sarcasm — is the clearest proof that the “joke” doesn’t stand up unaided. Perhaps one of the things BrewDog failed to remember is that on supermarket shelves and in beer fridges across the world, there will be no accompanying caveat, no “this is what they actually meant” issued by a cashier or a bartender. It is lazy not to realise that all anyone will see are literal rows of pink bottles with a line on them that says “BEER FOR GIRLS.”
Although comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Nestlé’s campaign for its chocolate bar, the Yorkie — a product that was explicitly aimed at men and whose marketing slogans included “It’s not for girls!” “Not available in pink,” and “King size not queen size” — it is perhaps more appropriate to liken it to a campaign by British Airways at the time of the London 2012 Olympics. As one of the Games’ headline sponsors, its strapline was “stay at home,” a message which implicitly encouraged its market not to fly — one has to assume for a business that needs to make money, an ironic plea, which had exactly the opposite effect of what it set out to achieve.
The difficulties with counter-intuitive marketing strategies is not that audiences are necessarily stupid and will take the messaging at face-value, but that so often, trying to be too clever can often simply make you, as a brand, look stupid.
As well as remembering that BrewDog’s two founders are men, it’s difficult not to be cynical about the aims of this campaign. Whether or not they thought it would generate such a comprehensive backlash online, is almost a moot point. And even supposing the two men (who both happen to be called Elvis) do care about gender (in)equality — question mark there — surely their principal objective is to sell beer, and generate publicity.
In a fast-paced media landscape, where there is woke currency to be mined, brands and corporations not only attempt to do what they assume is “right,” but because it is topical and fashionable, they can engage too quickly and clumsily. And grappled by careless hands, attempts to communicate the right issues can so easily go badly wrong.
Here’s what the internet had to say to the beer company today:
If you have to explain the joke maybe it's not a very good joke— Rhiannon Grist (@RhiannonAGrist) March 6, 2018
It's painful. Like you've made a Pink IPA and you've written "Beer for girls" on the label. This is not as transgressive as you think it is, dudes.— Heather Parry (@HeatherParryUK) March 6, 2018
Swing and miss, love you but the point of inequality being highlighted by making it pink & unequal?! Show me your hiring diversity stats, your % at level, the hiring of females in the plants. Then if you want a stunt 20% off for women on any beer not just pink ones! #pinkwash— Em K (@elk3979) March 6, 2018
It is not the first time the brand has been accused of mishandling a sensitive issue. In 2015, it released the so-called “world’s first non-binary, transgender beer.” And was duly called out.
But it's beer. It's a beverage you consume to quench your thirst or to get drunk. It's, by default, genderless. #NoLabel @brewdog— Karen MacGrath (@TweetsOfSage) November 4, 2015
BrewDog is synonymous with the slogan “punk.” In the UK that word relates to a subculture with a diverse array of ideologies on fashion, other forms of expression, visual art, dance, literature and film: one “largely characterised by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom.”
In North American English, however, it means, informally, “a worthless person (often used as a general term of abuse).” From the reaction to the beer company’s move into gender politics, it’s pretty plain which kind of punks BrewDog look like today.