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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 22 July 2007

Pure Genius? Or sheer idiocy?


A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Marketing magazine to write a comment for their 'Brand Healthcheck' page, which looks at brands that are facing a rocky time and asks people what they should do. This one on Guinness was prompted by the fact that sales are down in the UK and Ireland, and there are rumours that Diageo (Guinness' owners) are thinking of closing down the St James' Gate brewery in Dublin, and brewing somewhere else more cost-effectively.

Here's what I said:

Anyone at Diageo who thinks it’s a good idea to close Guinness’ Dublin brewery should maybe also give some thought to abandoning the famous two-part pour, making it paler – lager-coloured say – brewing it in a shed just off the M1 and changing the name to something snappier – what about Harp? Oh, hang on…

Guinness is an unparalleled icon in the beer market, peerless in terms of quality. The brand team that walks away from this kills the brand.

Everyone I’ve ever met who has worked on Guinness knows what the real problem is – a problem that was recorded at least as far back as the 1930s. People think it’s heavy, harsh and bitter, a challenging taste, whereas it’s actually silky, smooth and deceptively drinkable. They think it’s a meal in a glass, whereas a pint of Guinness actually has fewer calories than lager.

Beer is about heritage, romance and tradition, whereas taste is transitory and often cyclical. Guinness has always stuck to its guns, and has ridden out all short term trends. It should continue to do so.

[Then you have to give a few bullet point, off-the-cuff marketing tips]

  • Step up experiential marketing – confront the misconception about the product head on by getting people to try it.

  • Events with vertical tastings of the many different Guinnesses available would only deepen people’s appreciation of the brand.

  • Don’t waver on ritual, and don’t lose the romance of the product

  • Try food pairings – why are so few people aware of what an amazing match Guinness is with chocolate desserts?

It's not that difficult, is it? I would bet my house on the fact that, if Guinness closed their brewery as a cost-saving measure, they would find themselves with a more impoverished business twelves months later. Why do so few marketers (and I say this as a marketer) fail to see that it's the romance of beer that contributes to profitable beer brands? Heritage, superstition, a respect for tradition, tribalism, belligerence, call it what you will, love it or hate it, all brand owners know that there is a huge but intangible value in the whole invisible history around any given brand. You can't prove it's there, so you can't quantify the impact of its loss. Until it's too late. And apart from that, isn't the world simply a duller place when this kind of thing gets overruled in favour of simple, measurable metrics? (Sorry, but that's what they call them - numbers.)

Hoegaarden closed the brewery in Hoegaarden, and there are rumours of industrial unrest leading to supplies runnign out in the UK - just as competitors like Grolsch Weizen appear on the scene. Boddington's clsoed its Strangeways brewery, and a year later announced that it was withdrawing advertising support (I would imagine, though Inbev would deny this, because the shrunken value of the brand doesn't justify a big spend).

Christ, it's hardly rocket science is it?

10 comments:

Stonch said...

"peerless in terms of quality"

I don't want to be a real ale twat, but I wouldn't agree with that comment. Standard Draught Guinness is one of the least satisfying stouts I've ever tasted. It's a beer of last resort, a stand by at sports stadia, gig venues, comedy clubs... not a beer of choice.

Closing their brewery in central Dublin will net the company billions of euros. The beer will still be brewed in Dublin. Guinness sales have, I think, actually *fallen* since they moved production of the UK stuff back to Dublin, pointing to the fact consumers aren't that bothered about where it's brewed.

Gyred said...

You're certainly right that a brand must stick to its guns, but a brand must also have the resolve to learn from its customers. Otherwise, it will go to the grave with its musket.

Bailey said...

I read your bit in Marketing magazine!

I think your argument is interesting, but I tend to agree with Stonch.

1. Guinness has next to no competition. It's almost the only stout you ever see on tap in the UK.

2. It has a fanatically loyal customer base who, for whatever reason, identify themselves as "Guinness drinkers". I think most would carry on drinking it out of habit, even if it was brewed on the moon, and tasted of cherries.

BLTP said...

I don't understand your arguments stonch and gyred you seem to arguing for more bland beers. Getting rid of Guiness won't fill pubs with real ale. A good pint of guiness is an enjoyable pint, the O'Conor Don in Marylebone lane sells a delish pint.

Pete said...

Hurrah! My blog gets its first proper debate!

Some interesting points raised, chaps. My words do perhaps look a little strange in a room full of serious beer lovers who really do know their stuff. But Marketing magazine's readership is a different kettle of fish!

I guess what this shows is the gulf between the mainstream beer world and the world occupied by the contributors to this debate. I know of maybe four pubs in London that serve the more interesting stouts and porters to which Stonch alludes, and I'd be drinking them all the time if I could. Guinness is a mass market brand. Quite often you're in a pub because it's the one your mates chose, or because it's showing the match or whatever. That's where it's peerless in terms of quality - where its only competition is Stella, Kronenbourg and John Smith's smoothflow. It's not a great world for beer, but it's where 99% of the magazine's readerhsip live. Some of my points were a way of introducing craft beer rhetoric to the moanstream world. If I'd had more than 150 words I'd have made some of the points you make here!

The thing I find intriguing is the idea that people don't care where their beer is brewed. I really think they do - have Guinness sales falled *because* it's not brewed in London any more? Has moving back to Ireland created a positive effect that's been outweighed by other factors? Or does it really not matter?

I do believe that romance, heritage, provenance are far more important in selling beer than most other product categories. It's what got me into beer in the first place. I'd love to know where Guinness' drinkers are going: are they trading up to the increasing range of craft beers available? Or switching to wine? Or giving up and opting for Kronenbourg extra cold?

BLTP said...

Aren't they all drinking magners?

Stonch said...

Pete, I allude in my own comment to the fact that I drink Guinness when there's nothing better. Yes, to me it's better than cooking lager or smoothflow bitter. But really, does that make a difference? Yes, people need to be introduced to craft beer in a sensible way. Part of that is explaining that Guinness isn't a craft beer, just as Stella isn't and Carlsberg isn't. Guinness isn't a gateway beer - it (deliberately) doesn't taste of much, and won't expand palates.

I don't agree that closing the St James Gate brewery will effect the Guinness brand. As we've discussed, until relatively recently the stuff was brewed in London, and most of drinkers who choose the black stuff neither knew nor cared. There was always guff about the Guinness from Ireland having magical qualities, but that never stopped people drinking the UK version. As you say yourself, consumers don't have a choice - Guinness is the only dark beer available in the vast majority of pubs in the British Isles. That's a terrible situation.

I'd submit that the kind of drinker who chooses a beer like Guinness isn't the kind who'll get upset about production moving from historic buildings in the city centre to Dublin suburbs, as long as his or her pint still tastes the same. In any case, they'll still be able to say "Brewed in Dublin" on the font.

BLTP - I can't see why you think we're arguing for blander beers. Quite the reverse, in fact. As for your pub in Marylebone serving a good pint of G, so does any pub that cleans its lines and stores the kegs in a functioning cellar. Guinness is a pasteurised keg beer, and doesn't vary from place to place unless the landlord does something very wrong indeed.

BLTP said...

What about Nigerian Guinness? Amongst London's diverse ethnic population stout in all it's forms is very popluar. I bought some Dannish "Cera"(?) stuff the other day, plus your Dragon etc. There is obviously a demand for some variety.

Stonch said...

I like Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (which is brewed in Nigeria, among other places).

My comments above relate to Guinness Draught, not the various other Guinness beers available around the world.

The nitrokeg Draught beer is what almost everyone in Britain thinks of when they hear Guinness, although interestingly Foreign Extra Stout in all its many versions outsells it globally.

Jack Mockford said...

I think it would be a dreadful shame for the production of Guinness to be moved away from its place of birth. However, I would have to agree with stonch on this one. If Guinness close St. James Gate Brewery then not only will the majority of regular pub goers not care, but the majority will probably not even know about it! Also, the average person with an underdeveloped beer palate would probably not notice the difference, if the flavour were to subtly change.