Crafting a success: How Nathan Lennon’s “hold my beer” attitude built Hawke’s Brewing Co.

Nathan Lennon David Gibson Hawke's Brew Co

“There were so many reasons not to do it.”

After making it big in New York, how did two close mates find themselves founding a craft beer company with one of Australia’s most legendary Prime Ministers?

Nathan Lennon, co-founder of Hawke’s Brewing Co. and the Bob Hawke Beer and Leisure Centre, took the stage earlier this year at This Way Up advertising festival of creativity. His keynote, “Hold my beer: How authentic storytelling can maybe, just maybe, keep your stupidest ideas alive,” shared the pair’s highlights, lowlights, and lessons learnt along the way.

Mediaweek caught up with Lennon to explore the difference between a stupid idea and a brave one, the potential of novelty executed with sincerity, and how life as creatives in brandland forged the tenacity and resilience needed to turn said “stupidest idea” into a cherished institution.

Trading comfort for the unconventional

On a blizzard day in New York a hypothetical question arose, becoming the catalyst for the brand: out of anyone in the world, who would you most like to have a beer with? To which Lennon’s future business partner, David Gibson, answered former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke AC, lauded for his ability to scull a pint in 11 seconds.

Lennon and Gibson made the choice to leave their hard-earned positions as creative directors at Droga5 when the viable chance to pitch a craft beer company to Hawke arose. To realise their full vision, the duo would also need to raise capital for a brewery, hospitality venue, and Chinese-Australian restaurant, all in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke AO

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke AO

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Lennon commented on the decision, “We’d worked so hard to get to a place in our careers where we were just at that tipping point. We could have gone on to get our boss’s job and our boss’s boss’s job and financial security, and still got to live in a favourite city. There were so many reasons not to do it. 

“The rational part of you, what you’d call the smart part of you would have suggested, don’t do it. But there’s a part of you, I suppose, you call it the stupid part of you, or the brave part of you.

He said, “We were at a stage in our lives, where we were ready to really take the risk on something.”

It was, of course, a risk that paid off. The Hawke’s Brew Co. beer label was launched in April 2017, and has since garnered over $7 million in nationwide media coverage – the most of any independent beer brand in the country. It stands as one of the more decorated brews in the country, earning gold medals for its Patio Pale and Underdog Session Lager at the Independent Beer Awards.

Hawke's Brewing Co.

Hawke’s Brewing Co.

Their follow-up venture, The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre, along with the Lucky Prawn Chinese-Australian bistro, launched in April 2022. TimeOut Sydney subsequently deemed it the ‘Best Casual Drinking Venue’ and Beer & Brewer ‘Brewpub of the Year’ of 2022. Recently, the Australian Bartender Awards crowned it ‘Best Brewery Bar’ of 2023.

But the meteoric success of such a whimsied idea makes more sense than may seem. Behind Lennon’s charming self-deprecation is the judiciousness and thoughtful planning you would expect from a highly awarded director – someone who has led work for Toyota, Motorola and Honey Maid, the latter of which earned him international acclaim and a nod from former President of the United States, Barack Obama.

“I mean, I’ve got to give myself a bit of credit,” said Lennon. “The pitch to Bob was more than just, ‘Hey, give us a crack, it’ll make for a good story!’ We mapped out a fairly rational reason why we thought Hawke’s could work. We had this dream built around this charismatic, really well-known, loved beer drinker that we felt would have the legs from a brand perspective to scale, to become national.”

Bringing a brand to life through storytelling

Situated in Marrickville, officially dubbed  the “second-coolest” suburb of Sydney, the Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre boasts a uniquely inviting atmosphere that belies its gargantuan warehouse walls.

Lennon described the motivation to extend the sustainable-focussed brewery into a hospitality experience that embodies the Hawke’s label, “We loved the brand component of it… There are lots of things from a storytelling point of view that just made so much sense. 

“The nostalgia and tapping back into our childhood and getting that emotion through, and Bob being a symbol of that period.”

The warehouse’s retro revival is the cosiest of old school Australiana and nostalgic rec-centre kitsch. On top of its RSL-esque Chinese restaurant, Shane Prawn, a 120 kilogram golden prawn, is perched in homage to iconic small-town monuments. Think Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana, or “Rambo”, Goulburn’s Big Merino sheep.

Lennon remarked on “the biggest prawn in the Southern Hemisphere,” which he playfully boasted. “It was just an opportunity to story tell about Australia. We love big inanimate objects; we do have a lot.

“I think we buy into what can be conceived as a gimmick because it tells us a bit of a story about our experiences.”

Despite the risk of entering tacky territory, what Lennon and Gibson managed to create doesn’t come off as a living museum or a one-off novelty visit. And that, ultimately, boils down to an authenticity in storytelling, and their belief in the brand’s narrative.

Lennon elaborated on the design elements, “There are parts of it that definitely are novelty, but we embrace that part of it in the Leisure Centre.”

“Those things remind me of road trips down the coast, dropping into random towns, and the Chinese restaurant in the local village or town is the only restaurant that’s open, or the only one you trust. There’s a gimmickry to that even, but there’s an authenticity to it as well.

Lessons of a hard-working advertising creative

Today, Hawke’s is an inspirational Australian brandland story, but it wasn’t an overnight success. Among other challenges, the dream involved convincing Bob Hawke to bestow his blessing to two creatives with no brewing experience, selling a fantasy to Australia’s media, and persuading a dubious boardroom in order to raise a necessary $5 million in capital.

With startups notorious for high failure rates and the hospitality business similarly known not to be for the faint-hearted, what gave Lennon and Gibson the edge? Lennon highlighted that their greatest transferable skills were honed in the battle-ready environment of professional creatives, no less under the tutelage of revered advertising marvel, CEO of Accenture Song, David Droga.

“I think what we took out of the industry was probably less of the concepting and creative strengths around brand, and more the character that it built up in us,” he explained.

“Being a creative is a super vulnerable day-to-day experience, where you put your ideas out into the world in some respect for judgement. Often, as hard as you’ve worked, someone will come back with a point of view that makes you have to rethink it, and problem-solve the issue they see. You work nights and weekends and run yourself into the ground sometimes to do it. 

He said, “It definitely built into us not only an amazing work ethic working as creators within the ad industry, but it also created this sort of steel backbone where we weren’t anywhere near as phased as what we probably would have been when there was a problem that surfaced.

“We’re still hypersensitive to all the things that did go wrong over that journey. But we always believed that there was a solution to a problem.”

Top Image: Nathan Lennon & David Gibson (L to R)

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