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A ‘Unicorn’ in Business: Lessons from BrewDog on Truly Authentic Engagement

Image credit: BrewDog

Sustainable Brands has recently reported on a range of really interesting, wide-range of initiatives coming out of the beer industry, including innovative packaging solutions, the use of renewable energy and efforts to address climate change and water scarcity.

All fine examples, but I believe one Scottish craft brewer has completely raised the bar for corporate social responsibility programmes: BrewDog, which was founded in 2007 by James Watt and Martin Dickie. The last decade has seen it become the largest and fastest-growing craft-beer producer in Europe, now representing five of the top seven UK beers. 

BrewDog was born on the singular mission of helping people to love craft beer as much as its founders do, and its story is all the more remarkable for the way in which it became a $1 billion brewery through crowdfunding as opposed to using traditional financing methods — the brewer created a unique form of equity-based crowdfunding called Equity for Punks, which has created a global network of 60,000 “Equity Punks,” resulting in what the founders describe as an “entirely new level of consumer engagement.”

It is this great ability to engage people that I believe many in the sustainability sector can learn from. BrewDog not only campaigns for craft beer, but for sustainability and social causes. One example is the recently launched Make Earth Great Again — a protest beer created to remind global leaders to prioritise issues relate to climate change, with all proceeds from it to be donated to 10:10, a charity lobbying for legislative changes relating to global warming.

And earlier this month, BrewDog turned its Punk IPA into “Pink IPA” in honor of International Women’s Day — satirically dubbed “Beer for Girls,” the campaign takes a jab at the lazy marketing efforts traditionally deployed to target the female market and shines a light on the continued gender pay gap.

But I think its recently launched Unicorn Fund is a truly inspirational, audacious and unique project worthy of recognition. In August of last year, BrewDog announced that it will give away 20 percent of its profits every year; 10 percent will be shared equally among its staff, and a further 10 percent issued to charities chosen by the brewer’s 1,000-strong workforce and Equity Punk investors. According to the company’s projected targets, BrewDog will give away in excess of £45 million via the Unicorn Fund in the next five years.

The fund is called the Unicorn Fund because, in Watt’s words, “companies which give away 20 percent of their profits to their staff and charities are rarer than unicorns.”

“Outdated CSR policies have zero consideration for their real-world impact, existing merely for the purpose of an oversized cheque and an awkward photo shoot,” Watt said. “This is a call to arms for businesses to democratise the impact their charitable contributions can have on their community, their people, and the world.”

“In our tenth year at BrewDog, we hope to inspire a new kind of business with the Unicorn Fund; one that doesn’t measure profit in purely monetary terms. Our mission for the next decade at BrewDog is not simply to redefine the beer industry, but to redefine industry itself.”

As an Equity Punk myself, I have followed BrewDog closely for the last few years, and I have seen firsthand its passion and commitment to engagement with those who are most passionate about its beers, philosophy and vision. Watt is a regular contributor to the Equity Punks online forum, and earlier this month spoke further about the Unicorn Fund:

“I believe that by giving away 10 percent of our profits to charity we will be a more valuable business 5 years from now than if we do not. I think it will help us recruit amazing people and therefore make the company perform better. I think it will increase our sales as consumers more and more want to buy from socially responsible companies. I believe our ground-breaking business model where we share 20 percent of profits will drive awareness globally. I believe the fact we will be supporting local causes in new key markets, such as Columbus and Australia, will endear us faster to local communities and grow our sales faster there. I believe our entire team will perform better because of this. I believe this will make us a better company to work for, and thus further improve performance.”

He continued with how it makes good business sense in the long term:

“Studies show that an excellent employee is twice as effective as an average employee. Studies also show that a fully engaged employee is over 2.5 times as effective as a less engaged employee. If all giving away an additional 10 percent of profits achieves is to help us improve our recruitment and engagement abilities, then it will pay for itself over and over again in terms of driving company performance and make this look like a very smart investment in OUR business over the medium term. Plus, it will do a hell of a lot of good in the world overall. WIN, WIN, WIN.”

Giving away 20 percent of your company profits is a monumental commitment, especially when you are also in a strong and early growth phase. Indeed, BrewDog has seen a great response from its Equity Punks community, a number of whom did not wish to see BrewDog giving away this level of profit. This type of gesture requires a huge amount of passion in order to help investors understand the value and meaning, hence Watt taking time to engage with the community on the matter.

The Equity Punk forum is where many BrewDog staff from all levels of the company join their investors, and it is the key channel for engaging with them. David McDowall, Managing Director of Retail at BrewDog, is also an active contributor to the forum, and he had this to say about the Unicorn Fund:

“James made a point in his note above that everyone in the management team was fully aligned with the decision on Unicorn Fund, and I just wanted to hop on to say that this is absolutely the case. The decisions that we have made on giving 10 percent of our profits to our team and now a further 10 percent of our profits to carefully selected causes have by far and away been my proudest moments as part of the team who lead this little business that we all love (that’s really saying something also, as we do a heck of a lot that we should all be massively proud of).

“Our plans are incredibly ambitious and audacious, as you all know, and we are SO aware that we only have a chance of delivering on them if we have an incredibly engaged, talented and motivated team.”

“We genuinely want you all to understand why we did this and to believe in it as passionately as we do. So, feel free to drop a note to me [via email] and if I can get face to face I will; otherwise, I’ll happily call or Skype to answer questions.”

“It’s time to believe in Unicorns. Keep fighting the good fight with us.”

BrewDog has grown rapidly in the last ten years, and the team believes that this can be sustained through its authentic and revolutionary CSR initiative. As Watt explained, happy and engaged employees are absolutely vital for the success of any company, and at BrewDog they are both contributing to many different causes and benefitting directly from the growth. As part of its goal to be the best place to work, BrewDog has been a Living Wage employer since 2014; the Unicorn Fund is an extension of the founders’ commitment to that which they believe.

A vision as bold and brave and theirs can only work if the leaders of BrewDog are authentic and really living that which they are preaching and evangelising. In our book, Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, Maria and I discuss the transition of consciousness necessary to really make the leap, whereby those wishing to influence others are able to fully engage with heart and soul, as opposed to just talking the talk. I believe unicorns such as BrewDog set a new bar for corporate social responsibility and sustainability programmes.


Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education and the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. He is a member of the Emerging Future Institute, a member of the Strongly Sustainable Business… [Read more about Simon Robinson]


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