Rocky, Karate Kid, Cool Runnings, Braveheart, Slumdog Millionaire, Dodgeball – can you see a theme emerging? I love a story about an underdog. Watching a character tackle adversity against all the odds and proving naysayers wrong is immensely satisfying, and the popularity of the genre shows that I’m not alone.

Brands can be underdogs too. These brands are often referred to as ‘challenger brands,’ a term coined twenty years ago by Adam Morgan, the co-founder of the strategic brand consultancy eat big fish.

To stand out from a crowded market, brands are actively encouraged to adopt a ‘challenger mindset.’ The marketing effectiveness consultant, Peter Field’s research into challenger thinking shows that having this mindset helps brands grow.

“The work I’ve done over the last twenty years establishes quite clearly that challenger thinking is not weird or odd. It may have been something that only a few forward-thinking brands had realised, but it is how brands drive growth” – Peter Field.

One underdog that has become the top dog in its market is BrewDog. In 2007, the most popular beer brands were Stella Artois, Carling, and Foster’s nobody had really heard of craft beer. That year

James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, explained that he and his friend Martin Dickie had a bone to pick with the brands that mass-produced ‘tasteless’ beers. They didn’t want to find a gap in the market, they wanted to define their own market. In 2007 BrewDog was born.

In true underdog style, they had many setbacks at the start of their journey, including a failed attempt at securing a slot on the BBC’s Dragons Den. They were prepared to offer the Dragons 20% for £100,000, which would have been one of the most lucrative investment opportunities in the history of the Den. Too bad the Dragons never got to hear their pitch. The producers deemed James and Martin as ‘not investment worthy.’

Following the Dragons Den set back, James and Martin began exploring other ways to finance their business and created ‘Equity for Punks,’ which lets people own part of BrewDog and have a say in how the business is run. Today BrewDog has 2,000 team members, 4 breweries, and 100 craft beer bars. In August 2020, they made it into Brand Finance’s list of the ‘world’s top 20 beer brands’ with more brand value than Stella & Carlsberg.

They care about the greater good.

BrewDog believes that business can be a force for good.

“We believe in the power of independence, community, and the positive power of a people-based business being a force for good in the world.” – James Watt, BrewDog Believe

Despite the small matter of a pandemic, they’ve still been able to raise their ambitions of becoming the first carbon-negative beer business, and they’ve become a living wage employer.

They’ve also created ‘The Unicorn Fund’ which they describe as a new blueprint for 21st-century business. With the fund, they pledge to give away 20% of their annual profits, with half going to their team and the other half being donated to charities that have been chosen by their Equity Punks.

They remain true to their values.

BrewDog built their business on the punk mentality and have committed to learning the skills that enable them to do things on their own terms. In 2016, one of their packing managers was annoyed that people were saying that they weren’t punk enough anymore. To prove them wrong, he printed ‘mother fucker day’ on the bottom of over 200k cans of Punk IPA. Most brands would reprimand this type of behaviour, but BrewDog recognised that his intentions were noble and made him employee of the month instead.

They care about their community.

BrewDog is proud to be a community-owned business and has over 135,000 Equity Punks across the world and they regularly break world records with their crowdfunding campaigns.

“We turned traditional business on its head when we first introduced the Equity for Punks business model, and it’s worked. We’ve been the fastest-growing food & drinks company in the UK over the last four years, and we’ve managed to scale purely via this mechanic. Equity for Punks is all about shortening the distance between us and the people who drink our beer, and enabling us to keep putting passion in people’s beer glasses without resorting to begging funding from big monolithic banks who don’t care about the beer.” James Wyatt, 2015

BrewDog has created a community for people who are passionate about great craft. Over the years, they’ve created a range of content to help people learn more about brewing. So much so, that they even give away all of their recipes for free. I personally think this is amazing when you consider that it is rumoured that only two people know the secret formula for Coca-Cola.

They also created the ‘The Brewdog network’ where you can browse over 100 hours of content about beer, brewing, and business. My personal favourite show ‘are you smarter than a drunk person’ is well worth a watch.

They give the people what they want.

In ‘Business for Punks: Break All the Rules’ James explains that brands need to have the ability to react at lightning speed. They’re able to gain a competitive advantage over the more traditional beer brands by asking their community what they want and being agile enough to deliver it. When Dominic Cummings went on a jolly during the lockdown, they decided to launch a special beer to mark the occasion. James took to Twitter to ask the community what they should call the new beer, and they chose ‘Barnard Castle Eye Test.’

The publicity led to the most demand they’ve ever seen for a beer, which is quite a feat when you consider that they also created ‘The  End of History’ one of the world’s strongest beers. They sold 648,768 cans of the new beer (all they could make), and the traffic crashed their website for 9 hours. The popularity of the ‘Barnard Castle Eye Test’ allowed BrewDog to make and donate over 100,000 bottles of sanitiser for frontline workers.

They run great marketing campaigns.

I love BrewDog’s marketing campaigns. Their ‘aunti-authoritain’ and ‘don’t give a damn approach’ is epitomised in their 2018 ‘Your call campaign’ which encouraged drinkers to follow the numbers, because the numbers never lie.

And the numbers really were quite staggering. Using RateBeer scores, BrewDog highlighted the ratings of some of the UK’s most popular beers – with Budweiser scoring 0/100 compared to Brewdog’s Punk IPA, which scored 97/100.

When you’re the underdog and challenger brand, your competitors can spend a lot more on promoting themselves. The AB InBev Group owns 8 out of the 10 most valuable beer brands worldwide, including Budweiser, Stella Artois, and Corona spend millions promoting their drinks every year. BrewDog’s ‘Your call campaign’ was great because it got people talking, helping their campaign reach a wider audience.

Talking of numbers, last year, BrandZ named BrewDog as one of the UK’s fastest-growing brands. Its value had increased by 40% from 2018, and they estimated BrewDog’s brand value to be a staggering $1.2bn.


Over the last 13 years, BrewDog has gone from strength to strength by doing things differently. They understand the importance of upholding strong values and caring for their community, who in turn support them when times are tough. They haven’t simply disrupted the market, they’ve created a completely new market, one which mainstream brands couldn’t ignore. As a Brand or Marketing Manager, it can be tempting to look at what your competitors are doing and follow suit, but it is worth taking some time, and considering it things could be done differently. If you need help, gather your friends together* sample some of BrewDogs finest craft (preferably not the end of history), play the Ramones, and ask yourself what would the punks do.

“The power of any brand is inversely proportional to its scope; consequently, your focus should be laster-like, and your product should be uber-tuned. Then you have the inviting task of creating a brand and defining your own market. Don’t scramble around begging for other people’s leftovers: create your own rules and exist in your own space – James Watt,‘Business for Punks: Break All the Rules” – the BrewDog Way’

Further reading

Photo by Nighthawk Shoots on Unsplash

*while adhering to whatever the Government Guidelines are saying that week.

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