guts logo | Brand Strategy Agency
5th March 2024
Marketers Changing the World: Hawke’s Brewing Co.
Kara Sullivan GIF | Gutscreative | Brand Services Agency
Written by:
Kara Sullivan

It’s 2016, two homesick Aussie creatives are sitting inside the office of New York’s #1 advertising agency, Droga5, wistfully mulling over a question – “If you were back home in Australia right now, who would you most want to have a beer with? Their answer led them home to Sydney, not to just have a beer with Bob Hawke, but to go one better and seek the blessing to start a beer company with Australia’s most iconic Prime Minister. An unlikely trio of co-founders, who would bond over their love of beer, country and the beauty of its environment.

One year later, Hawke’s Brewing Co. is born, with Bob Hawke pouring the first schooner at The Clock Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills, garnering millions in earned media attention in Australia and around the world. Five years later comes The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre, the company’s award-winning brewery in Marrickville.

Nathan Lennon, Bob Hawke and David Gibson - co-founders of Hawke’s Brewing Co.

It’s been a wild career ride for Nathan Lennon and David Gibson since they met in London in 2006 , where they teamed up for their first job together at BBH. From Europe, back to Australia to work with Micah Walker at Publicis Mojo, before taking up posts as Creative Directors at Droga5 New York, working under the wing of David Droga, Australia’s most legendary ad exec.

Strap in and hear from Nathan how they transitioned from working on other companies’ brands to starting and building their own brand, and what they learned after turning a chance conversation in New York into a fully-fledged reality in Australia.

1. What’s your most memorable experience from working at Droga5?

The day we resigned to David. He assumed we were going to another agency but we told him, “Nup, we’re leaving advertising to set up a beer company with Bob Hawke. And you can’t talk us out of it because Bob’s already said ‘yes’.”

The truth of it was Bob hadn’t given us his blessing at all. We lied. We left David’s office thinking, “If Bob doesn’t say yes, we’re totally f*^ked.”

2. Your first campaign out of Droga5 drew the attention of President Obama?

Honey Maid was an age-old American Graham Crackers brand that had become a bit stale and needed to find relevance again. So we filmed a series of commercials that authentically reflected what the modern American family looks like. This included same sex parents, the images of which rubbed up a large base of their conservative customers the wrong way. Suddenly, all the rednecks in Midwest America are threatening to boycott the brand, writing vile, homophobic commentary on Honey Maid’s social and YouTube channels.

The president of Mondelez [Honey Maid’s parent company] wondered if they should disable the comments, but we implored them to do the opposite and own their position. While there were thousands of hateful comments, there were ten times that in supportive messages. So we doubled down and commissioned two artists to take printouts of every negative tweet, comment and post, and create a paper art installation that literally turned all of that hate into the word ‘love’, then surrounded this with a sea of positive comments. Effectively showing how love will always trump hate.

It became the most shared commercial in the world the week it launched, sales went up, and before we knew it Barack and Michelle Obama are advocating for the brand at the White House LGBT Pride Month Reception. It was a moment that transcended advertising and probably instilled in us our passion for doing more purpose-driven work.

That said, about 12 months later we released a series of absurd, dark toilet paper commercials with Oscar-winning director, Bennett Miller. No purpose, just fun. But that’s what I love about advertising – never a dull moment.

Having a beer with Anthony Albanese
From drawing the attention of Barack and Michelle Obama in the US, to having a beer with Prime Minister Albanese in Marrickville

3. Which achievement are you most proud of at Hawke’s Brewing?

When we opened The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre and saw Bob Hawke’s wife, Blanche, get teary when she walked into the pool room that has all of his photos and memorabilia on display. While we thankfully don’t often make our guests cry, we do see how emotionally connected some people are when they visit. The space, the sounds, the smells (mostly wafting from the Lucky Prawn Chinese Restaurant) seems to transport people back to a moment in time they fondly remember – the 1980s.

The devil is in the detail in the venue. I don’t think there was a stone left unturned in terms of how each space was designed. The storytelling aspect is what makes it special. As it was starting to materialise from an empty warehouse into something tangible, David just kept turning to me, saying “this thing is going to be bloody epic”. He was incredibly instrumental in how that project came together – crafting the story without compromise, managing the construction teams (during Covid lockdowns) and making sure the vision stayed on track.

3. Greatest career fail?

We have so many. From accidentally ordering $12,000 worth of beer coasters when our tap distribution was only 11 pubs (5 of which didn't take coasters); to partnering with a national cricket fan club and supplying them free beer events all around the country when we only held distribution in Sydney; to signing a 15 year lease on our current property before learning it didn't have the requisite power to operationalise our brewery (we sorted this eventually but it nearly spelled the end of our business at the time).

4. Most important thing to remember when building a brand.

To be brutally honest about yourself. Take the bullshit filter off and really ask yourself the hard questions. Learn who your audience is, what they really think of you, the category, and how you can fulfil their needs, genuinely.

Research is a controversial topic in marketing. But I support it, if approached with honesty. If we’re inside any business or brand long enough, we can be guilty of falling in love with our own assumptions. We have to be prepared and open to having research dismantle these assumptions if we want to draw insights that can lead to work that has an impact. We did this recently for Hawke’s, dispelled some of our own biases about our brand, and completely repositioned ourselves to ensure we have relevance in today’s beer category. It’s hard killing work that you’ve always thought made sense, but you have to remove your ego and keep searching for the truth. Then execute it with uncompromisingly strong creative. Easier said than done. But worth the battle.

5. What was your greatest learning going from agency to business owner?

Realising that advertising isn’t going to solve all of your business problems. For the most part, you’re lucky if advertising, even good advertising, can solve all of your marketing problems.

The operational complexity of this business is a challenge. Logistics, operations, brewing, supply chain, finance, and even marketing. The learning comes from problem solving on the fly, messing up, moving on with lessons learned. And surrounding yourself with great talent who can take your place.

Hawkes Brewing Company, view of inside of the pub in Marrickville
The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre in Marrickville

6. What brand do you most admire and why?

MONA (The Museum of Old & New Art) in Hobart. The experience they’ve created and continue to evolve is a masterclass in brand storytelling, consistency and uncompromised creativity. A big idea unpacked into every single touchpoint, from the booking experience, to the ferry ride, to the museum experience and the curation of art. They don’t deviate from their North Star, always staying true to their philosophy behind the ‘asymmetrical upside of risk’.

I admire this because it’s not easy to stay brutish on how you show up as a brand. There are moments where it’s easier to just let things slip through which don’t quite feel as “on brand”, where you’ll make everyone’s lives a bit easier. They don’t let things slip through at MONA. And the reward for that is evident in the experience.

7. Do you miss the ad world?

For sure. When you’re deep in the trenches of your startup, bullets whizzing past your head everyday, often paralysed by fear of f^*king it all up, you start missing the days when you just had one job to do (and you happened to be pretty good at it).

What I miss most about advertising is having that big special idea that draws whispers around the agency and you’re given the resource – the talent, the budget, the time – to craft it into something you’re really proud of. And then you can get it out the door and move onto the next brief. Constant, cyclical feelings of hope, peppered of course with moments of frustration, ideas dying, weekend work. Some things I don’t miss.

Hawke’s is probably the biggest ‘idea’ we’ve had. As a brand, and a business, it’s evolved. It started as a can of lager and it’s now a three-tiered business – wholesale/retail, hospitality and a restaurant. It’s a constant though. You can’t just move into the next brief. Having a business is like working on a pitch that never ends. Help!

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Guts Creative acknowledges the awesome culture and creativity of the traditional custodians of the Country where we work: Awabakal Nation and Worimi Nation. We walk humbly in their footsteps, support the protection of their invaluable knowledge, and are inspired to do better by Elders past and present.
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