For the first episode of season three, we’re joined by Richard Innes — Head of Content at Brewdog.
In this episode, we cover everything from Brewdog’s famously witty and acerbic tone of voice to some of Brewdog’s most successful content campaigns. We won’t spoil anything for you, but be prepared to get inspired.
Tune in to find out how Brewdog uses content to make it one of the most exciting and provocative brands in the world.
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Hello Richard! Welcome to WordBirds, excited to have you here.
Very nice to be here. Thanks for having me!
So, I’m excited to hear more about you and your experience at Brewdog. But before we get started let’s just jump into the quick fire questions. I’m going to say some things, short phrases, and you just answer. So, Amazing content is … ?
Engaging. You can’t communicate a message unless you’ve engaged the user so first and foremost content has to be engaging.
Concise or descriptive content?
My natural inclination is descriptive but I’ve been pushing myself over the years to become more concise.
Say there’s no Brewdog in the world, which company has the best brand voice?
It’s not the most original answer in the world, but I’m going to say Paddy Power. I think they’re the gold standard and I love what they do.
Fantastic. The best piece of content advice?
That’s a tough one. Write the introduction at the end.
When I’m creating content I always … ?
Think of the user first, which sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t.
I love that. If we’re going to stay on one of these, let’s talk about that as we set the stage to talk about brand voice. We create a voice and we communicate it out to an organization. We try to align that and sound like that but we’re guessing, let’s be honest.
The idea of thinking more and getting audience feedback to help define that voice and get closer and closer to what your target audience wants — moving from strategy alignment to audience alignment. It’s a fascinating process because we know what we think but they know how they’re absorbing it. How do you feel about that?
I think it goes back to my previous experience of being a journalist. When you’re in journalism, particularly in digital journalism, you spend all day every day thinking about your audience.
Regardless of who the audience is, I’m thinking about how the user is engaging with this piece of content I’ve created. Because you’re measured on your clicks, views, dwell times, or whatever your metrics are. And you sit there literally staring at your real-time analytics all day, just thinking, “Is this engaging with people?”Many brands are more concerned about what they're saying rather than what the consumer is hearing. Click To Tweet
And what I’ve realized moving into the commercial world, and I think this isn’t specifically Brewdog and applies to many, many brands, is that many brands are more concerned about what they’re saying rather than what the consumer is hearing. Companies are more concerned with broadcasting their message and getting it out there. That’s all well and good, but who’s going to hear it if you’ve not constructed your message in the right way or delivered in an engaging fashion.
Having moved into the commercial world after a long time in editorial, I think that’s the thing that I’ve brought more than anything else. A new way of thinking about brand communication.
Mark Ritson talks about this brilliantly. I’m never going to be a Mark Ritson because he’s a genius, but I think he communicates that really eloquently. The idea that you have to flip it round and start to think about what your audience is hearing and not just what you’re saying. I think that’s something brands are really guilty of.
I agree. It’s a rush to market. We have content, we have a message, and we need to get it out there. And there isn’t necessarily a bridge.
We have so many different analytic pieces of data about how content is absorbed. But there isn’t a connection back to how content is created. So I can’t see that as a result of the way that I’ve written the content (like the phrases, tone, and clarity levels I’ve used) the connection between the content and conversions, bounces, or time on page. Those two things don’t coexist in most cases.
And if you don’t think about it you’re just psyched, like boom, I got content out, we succeeded in our job, we put something in place. There’s loose measurement, I put a piece of content out, there’s a business goal associated with it, we’re expanding awareness. But it’s not, “did we get what we’re hoping for?” in most cases.
Yes, I think that’s absolutely fair and I completely agree. You made the point about the business goal being awareness. If your business goal is very much around driving sales, there’s content you can create where you can, absolutely, get very easily into the heart of whether it succeeded or not.
So when you’re talking about performance-based content, the stuff that you just want to drive people to a specific landing page, or drive conversion, or drive sales, then the measurement piece becomes really obvious. Therefore you can very quickly decide whether it’s worked.You have to flip it round and start to think about what your audience is hearing and not just what you’re saying. Click To Tweet
When you’re talking about a brand piece, and for a brand like Brewdog brand identity is everything and those brand awareness pieces are fundamental to the business, it becomes far more difficult to make a judgment call on whether that’s worked or not. That’s a real, real challenge. How do you actually assess if you’re just talking about your brand rather than trying to sell something, how do you assess a successful content?
And then how do you dial it up to be more successful?
That’s where it gets really interesting. I think we missed one piece of this because we jumped right into how you moved into this role, but let’s take a step back. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do at Brewdog?
So, I’m the Head of Content and I head up the central social team of all the content creation and social media posts that go along alongside that. I also handle a lot of our agency relationships and work alongside the CMO on all kinds of things across various large campaigns and the “always on” piece.
The “always on” piece is really central to what we do at Brewdog. We’ve been working on that specifically over the last few months — how we move the content strategy to filling that “always on” gap. Because for a brand like Brewdog there are so many calendar moments, there are so many things we’re doing, we’re talking about so many different things at any one time. That’s who the brand is, that’s what we’re about, and that’s never going to change.
But where the content is really helping, I hope, is by telling the “always on” story and how we can be more than just those campaign moments. We need to continue to help people understand what we’re about, what sort of brand we are, and more importantly, what the beer tastes like. That’s the fundamental goal
As a consumer on the other side, I see the copy, I see the ads in the world and to be fair I’m not a huge beer person and yet it makes me want to go buy beer right away.
The new stout that just came out that you’ve begun marketing, I want that and it’s not available where I am. I want it and I don’t know why. All I know is the words you used and the imagery that’s associated with it. But it definitely has an impact and I’ll go out of my way to get it.
I’m flying to Berlin in a week and a half specifically to try that beer. Okay I actually have to go for work, but you see what I mean.
I think that’s a really good example. What we’ve done with the stout, called Black Heart and designed to compete against Guinness, that’s really interesting is how we’ve positioned it. And the way we’ve communicated is something that no other big brewery could do. No other big beer brand would do what we’ve done, specifically in terms of the comms.
We’re not we’re not slating Guinness, we’re not suggesting for a moment that Gunniess isn’t a great beer. Guinness is a fantastic beer, always has been, what we’re suggesting is that there’s an option, there’s a choice. Having a pint of stout doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a pint of Guinness. There’s now an alternative that will appeal to a big audience.
A lot of our beers are designed with a specific demographic in mind. Black Heart is very much designed for anyone who likes a Gunniess and we’re confident they will like a Black Heart hopefully more. The way we’ve gone about doing that, some of the video content we’ve created, and a lot of the copy has been cheekily brushing up against Guinness, without hopefully being too disparaging.
And it has to be right because content for you as a smaller business than the incumbent competitor, you have to be recognized, you have to take risks. I think one of the things this season on WordBirds that I’m going to be talking about a lot is this ability to take risks.
Going up against Guinness and positioning yourself alongside them is risky. I think having the courage to try that’s a really interesting thing. Because so many marketers, and so many content people, like to take the safe route and here you are saying we’re going right up to our competitors.
Yes and that’s effectively what the brand is about. That starts with James Watt our CEO and permeates through the whole business, through the whole brand. We’re about risk taking. In many respects we are almost the opposite to many many big brands.
It’s quite nice for me, this is the first time I’ve worked on the brand side, my past is all based in editorial. So for me this feels normal. But it’s only when I talk to other people who are far more experienced in working for brands, that I understand and realize what fortunate position we’re in at Brewdog because we’re given a license.
Not only are you given a license to take a risk, but if you’re not taking a risk you’re doing it wrong. The expression that James often repeats is “If another beer brand could do this, we should not be doing it.” If you could just substitute in the Brewdog name for another brewery or another big beer product then it’s not for us. Everything we do has to be unique and different, and have a point of difference from the rest of the market.
Because to your point, we’re working on a fraction of the budget that some of those other big beer companies are. So we need to make noise in a different way, we need to drive brand salience in a different way, and we need to make every marketing dollar or pound we spend go the extra mile. So that involves creativity, it involves a lot of humor, and it involves really knowing how to grab attention.
So point at a campaign that you think embodies that. What’s something that you’ve done, recently or not recently, that really gets at exactly the feel that you’re trying to get out there?
There’s two campaigns I would point out and for different reasons. There’s something we did with the Peter Crouch Podcast, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Peter Crouch but he’s a former England footballer and he’s very famous in the U.K. He has a podcast that’s very humorous and loosely football based. It’s incredibly popular and we did a partnership.
On his podcast he spoke about this drink he created called “Laout,” which is a mixture of lager and stout. And when he says he created that he used to sit in the pub and he’d pour lager and stout into the same glass.
So we saw an opportunity there and said “Hang on a minute, for your next series why don’t we actually make that for you?” Low and behold this huge branded content campaign was born, but it was born out of something completely organic. They were talking about that long before we were involved, so we were able to just move the story along, come to a commercial arrangement, and agreement in terms of the branded content side of things.We need to make every marketing dollar or pound we spend go the extra mile. So that involves creativity, it involves a lot of humor, and it involves really knowing how to grab attention. Click To Tweet
The whole next series of one of the most popular podcasts in the U.K. was about how we were making “Laout” for real. We ended up having a big launch party and it became the fastest selling Brewdog beer we’d ever made. It sold out in a couple of hours, it was insane, and incredibly successful.
The uplift in brand consideration among our audience was absurdly high. It just flew, it did brilliantly.
Now we were able to do that because any other beer brand would have looked at that and said: “Hang on a minute, you want us to make a new product from scratch in a matter of weeks not even months. We don’t know what we’re getting into and they’ve never done a branded content partnership before.” It was a complete risk and it wasn’t cheap for us, but it more than paid for itself in terms of the success.
So that was one example and then the other example is where you get to the point of Brewdog’s principal stance. We’re a purpose driven business, James always says that, and the purpose behind the brand is very important — in terms of who we are and what we stand for.
The stance we took against the football World Cup in Qatar last November. The fact that the World Cup was hosted there and all the issues around human rights abuses that were talked about across the planet in the build-up. We put a stake in the ground and decided to call ourselves the “anti-sponsors” of the world cup.
We weren’t quite as polite as that, we didn’t call it the World Cup we call it the “World F*cup.” And then actually put our money where our mouth was. We donated, and again this came again from James downwards, all profits we made from the sales of Lost Lager, which is our best selling in lager. All profits from that during the World Cup went to human rights charities.
That was a significant amount of money we donated and it caused an enormous stink. Because we were accused of hypocrisy, we were accused of all sorts of things. But the point is that other brands wouldn’t have done this in the first place. This was major news on news programs across the U.K. The outrage that we were even daring to do this and how it wasn’t our place for a number of reasons.
I think a lot of other brands would have gone into crisis mode and been a bit shell shocked. But we doubled down. We just kept going and kept posting about it. To the point where I went out and did some voxbox on the street with a film crew. We kept talking about it and just kept it going.
The outcome at the other end was very positive, aside from the amount of money we were able to donate to some very worthwhile organizations. The outlook for Brewdog was very positive off the back of that.
The sentiment was great in the end. There was a load of hate at the start. And we do get a lot of hate at Brewdog for all sorts of reasons. But that’s almost a marker that we’re doing something right.
If we feel like we’ve just landed in the middle and people may look at a campaign or a piece of content and shrug their shoulders, then that’s not Brewdog. If loads of people love it, great, but if loads of people hate it too, that’s fine. As long as we’re prompting a reaction of some description then we’re doing okay.
I feel like that leads right into the last section, which is the PSOTD (provocative statement of the day). It sounds like everything you do is provocative, but what have you got?
I was thinking about this before we started recording. What I would say, because we haven’t really talked about tone of voice and tone of voice is my go to thing and it’s the first thing I did when I started at Brewdog. I said the tone of voice is a bit all over the place here and we need to have some consistency and I created a tone of voice guide, which has gone out across the business to make sure we have a consistent voice.
The tone of voice that you find at Brewdog is witty, acerbic, clever, and quite self-aware. We’re not the only brand to have that sort of tone of voice. There are plenty of others, I mentioned Paddy Power before, there’s also Oatly and Innocent.
My provocative statement of the day is that when it comes to that sort of tone of voice you can either do it or you can’t. It can’t be taught. I’m a firm believer in that.
It probably doesn’t say much about me as a manager, but I think you can teach somebody how to write in that witty, very Brewdog specific tone of voice, to a point. I could get anybody up to a point. But to be good at it you can do it or you can’t.
I’ve interviewed people, we’ve been recruiting recently, and we do the tasks like how would you reply to this tweet.
But the thing I’m interested in is: What does your WhatsApp group chat with your friends look like? When you’re going back and forth with a friend privately on WhatsApp, what does it sound like? Do you take the piss out of your friends? Do you make fun of them?The tone of voice that you find at Brewdog is witty, acerbic, clever, and quite self-aware. Click To Tweet
People often look at me like “Why are you asking me this?” But that’s the point. That’s the tone of voice I want replicated on the Brewdog channel. I don’t want somebody coming in and having to make it up, I want someone who thinks like that when they’re talking to a friend and being able to use that same voice on our channel.
For me it would be, do you quote Fletch all day? Because if you don’t know any Chevy Chase quotes, we’re not talking!
Yes exactly! It’s the same with Anchorman. Quote me some Anchorman.
Exactly! “Oh I’m sorry, that Will Ferrell guy’s not funny.” Okay, fine. Thanks for stopping in.
I like that. That’s an interesting provocative statement of the day.
I’m thinking of a meeting that I had several years ago with a reinsurance company in New York, based out of Paris. They spoke about bringing on young writing staff to write about their interesting product offerings like insurance for equine husbandry, for instance. They’re trying to write in the tone for the equine set and they have people that don’t know how to do that.
How do we bring people in and bring them up to speed on communicating in that way? And what your angle is you’re not hiring in the horsey folks …
You’re hiring a good writer.
Right. You’re getting somebody that might be okay at writing but they’re not going to be domain to you. It’s not going to sound like you.
There’s an editor I used to work with on a magazine many years ago. He was adamant that it doesn’t matter if someone’s writing for a fashion magazine that’s really high-end and premium or they’re writing for a tabloid, if they can write, they can write. And that’s always stuck with me because I think that’s true.
I’ve written for all kinds of publications over the years. It’s not about being able to turn your hand to one thing. I think you can do it or you can’t. And that’s not to say you can’t have professional writers who could be trained because of course you can. I’m talking about being at the top level, you’ve either got it in you or you don’t.
You see that from an editorial perspective. My initial background was in lifestyle magazines and that’s where the best writers I’ve ever worked with have been. Not in newspapers.
In newspapers you get good writers, who are good at that job. But a lot of them aren’t natural writers who could sit down and write you a funny paragraph on anything. And a lot of people that I worked with at magazines can.
I think that’s a great grounding for a specific type of tone of voice. If you’re trying to communicate in a very corporate way then that’s a different question.
I love that whole idea. So what piece of advice would you offer, on that thread, to folks in your role at other businesses. People that are building a content tone of voice. How do you get started?
First and foremost you’ve got to think about what you stand for and what you’re trying to achieve. And you need consistency. It’s not enough to say “We want to be funny.”
A lot of people want to be funny, but there are many different ways to be funny. And what’s the end goal here? Why are you trying to be amusing, what are you trying to capture, and what are you trying to do?
Similarly, I would say with the type of content and the copy you’re writing, to not be too formulaic. I’ve encountered that quite a lot. People can treat content like a mathematical equation.
More and more, people are looking for authenticity in their online content in particular. And you can’t fake that. It sounds stupid to say, but you can’t fake authenticity. That’s the truth.
Start with the real content that you’re trying to convey. Then you have editing processes and you tweak things accordingly. But don’t try to build content to do a specific purpose.
Come up with a good idea, figure out what that is, and then apply some strategy to it. I’d always work that way around because first and foremost you’ve got to have a good idea.
I think that’s the key. Start with a good idea, then apply the strategy, and then see if it fits. It may be that you end up throwing that in the bin. Once you’ve applied strategic thought to it might not tick your audience goals or fit in with the strategic objective of your department.
And quite often that’s how we work at Brewdog. Someone will have an idea and we’ll flesh it out. Then when we get to that point we might realize the idea might not do what we need it to do. But you should always start with the idea first.
Because if it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. People can overcomplicate this stuff. It’s only once you overlay what you’re trying to achieve that you can figure out if it’s worth doing.
So many people in this space just start with, “Oh my god, something’s due on Tuesday!” And start with a good idea and move from there. That’s where the impact comes from.
Richard thanks for being on the show! This was amazing. I’d love to get you back on here again in the future.
Thanks for having me! I enjoyed it.
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