It's been over a month since Black Flag Brewing released its GABs beer 18.1% ABV ‘Barely Legal’ whose tap decal was a take off of the worlds largest porn website logo, Porn Hub. The reaction it got from the beer industry and then the wider media was heavy, fast and chaotic, spurred on by the brewery’s initial response to stay steadfast and not change the name that many described as ‘offensive', 'sexist' and ‘dangerous’.
Here’s a recap if you missed it: Black Flag entered ‘Barely Legal’ as their GABs beer with the beer descriptor that included ‘its bitter, boozy and something to tell your friends about’, which, when combined with the name ‘Barely Legal’ and the Porn Hub logo mimic, could be taken as an innuendo about sexualising 18 year old women. Three days before GABs festival launched in Melbourne it was brought to ‘Drinks Agents for Change’ attention (a group I am one of the founders of that aims to make the booze industry a safer and more welcoming space). We immediately contacted both GABs and Black Flag Brewing asking them to kindly change the names listing many reasons but ultimately that the name was promoting a culture where it’s acceptable to take advantage of younger women, and make a joke out of it too. Gross. We never received a response from the brewery. GABs emailed back and their initial response was that they supported Blackflag and weren’t changing the name, which thankfully they later retracted, ultimately requesting the brewery to change it.
We posted about Blackflag's (lack of) reaction on the Drinks Agents for Change socials, as did some other like minded people, and like a fire on a 40 degree day, it took off. The story was picked up and shared by prominent feminist ‘Clementine Ford’ who has a large following, and it was only then that Black Flag decided to acknowledge the situation on their socials. But they did it wrong. In what was described as ‘gaslighting an entire community’ they said they never meant it to be about sexualising teenage women. Everyone took it the wrong way, it was really about celebrating what it means to turn 18. Sorry…..what??? Jaws simultaneously dropped around the country. People were pissed. The slogan ‘Get Misogyny Outta My Beer’ was created by yours truly and released as a graphic that takes off NWA’s album graphic ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Suddenly it was everywhere not just on socials, but people were making badges, stickers, one company even printing T-Shirts!
ABC, Channel 7 and the Age got wind of this and suddenly it was mainstream, on every new site, TV and radio station. It was mind blowing how quickly this thing moved.
Once there was nationwide media coverage, Blackflag finally back tracked, apologised and admitted fault on the first day of GABs. Unfortunately for their brand, it was too late. They got the most media attention any Australian brewery had had in a long time, perhaps ever and they were the talk of the beer industry too. For allllll the wrong reasons….it’s difficult to comprehend the level of damage it did to their brand.
Here is Blackflag's apology that came too late:
Imagine what they could have avoided if this was their initial response?
So what could have they done differently? Well apart from the obvious (ie don't be creepy) from a branding perspective it comes down to VALUES. We bang on about them to our clients, citing all the reasons why they are so intrinsically fundamental to a healthy brand, yet because they are an immeasurable element you cannot quantify their, well, value. It’s hard to see how they affect the bottom line when you can’t put a number on them. Well let me ask you this then, do you love someone? (I hope the answer is a yes) Can you please quantify how much you love them? Hard to put a number on love eh? Yet love is one of the most, if not THE most important thing to a human life. Same goes for values, just because you can’t measure something, doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable or in this case, a saviour from a humiliating and damaging situation.
The value of brand values lies in their ability to shape and define a brand's identity, reputation, and relationship with its target audience.
Brand values are the guiding principles and beliefs that a business holds, which influence its decisions, actions, and the way it conducts its business. If diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) are important to your brand, you can avoid making the mistake Blackflag did, by including DEI in your brand values. If they are a true value to the business, one you live and breathe by, it’s near impossible to make the mistake they did, because a concept like ‘Barely Legal’ would never even make it to the marketing meeting. Employees would know that this isn’t what the business is about, and would never suggest the idea. If by chance, you find yourself in a position where something has flown under the radar, and been interpreted in a way you had not intended, your values come into play here too. During a crisis like Blackflag found themselves in, brand values act as a guiding light for decision-making and crisis management. When a brand has clearly defined values, it can respond to these crises in a manner that aligns with those values, maintaining its reputation and mitigating potential damage. Values-driven businesses tend to be more resilient, as they have a strong foundation to weather storms and can then emerge stronger.
Considering this, we can imagine how things might have gone differently for Blackflag if they are, as they say ‘for women’ and DEI were included in their brand values. Even if somehow the ‘Barely Legal’ beer had made it out into the world, their public reaction to it would have been different, perhaps apologising first, instead of their initial defensive stance that made them look like liars. Crisis would have been averted. The sort of media attention that they received was not only damaging to them, but the craft beer industry as a whole. But perhaps collateral damage that we, as an industry, must cop in order for us to realise the way of the future, and learn about the importance of DEI.
It’s not just a man's world anymore, DEI is actually good for everyone, and it's good for business too.
In fact a study carried out by BCG in 2018 reported that organisations with above average diversity scores worldwide stated better overall financial performance with EBIT margins 9% higher than companies with below average diversity on management teams. A couple of years later the 2020 McKinsey Report found that ‘the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability’. DEI only about giving everyone a fair go, happily, it will make you more money too! Perhaps when it comes to DEI as a value, there is a way to quantify it in terms of profit! Hooray!
So, can you take a moment to reflect: have you truly cemented your brand values? Are you proud of them, embodying them in every aspect of your business? Do your employees grasp their importance? And most importantly, do your customers truly understand what your brand stands for? If any of these questions left you with a sense of uncertainty, it's time to revisit your brand values. Doing so could not only prevent a potential crisis but also safeguard the reputation and success of your brand, which is ultimately what we can learn from the Blackflag Barely Legal case. Remember, while quantifying the value of values may be challenging, their impact and significance are immeasurable.
What are the most valuable values to you?