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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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Monday, 17 March 2014

Guinness back to what it does best

It really is good for you.
Ah, St Patrick's Day: guaranteed to drive some angsty beer geeks to ask why everyone insists on drinking Guinness when there are so many superior stouts available, and explain to their friends that it's not really an Irish beer at all because it was derived from London's porter tradition, so really the whole of Paddy's Day is a sham, and anyway it's an Irish festival and we're not Irish so why are we celebrating this one instead of celebrating with real ale on St Georges Day?

And no one listens to them. Instead, everyone else sees it simply as an excuse to spend another boozy night in the pub enjoying themselves, buying into a version of the Irish craic that may not have anything true about it, but is perfectly good fun nonetheless, if you're in the mood for it.

Guinness is facing an interesting time at the moment. It's the very best illustration out there of our declining need for big brand reassurance in the beer market. In the late nineteenth century, when brewers floated on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the pubs that sold their beers, Guinness followed a different path, building a singular, iconic brand rather than a tied estate of pubs selling a range of different beers. Throughout the twentieth century, it didn't matter whether you were drinking in a Whitbread, Courage or Watney's pub, a freehouse or a managed pub - you had to have Guinness on the bar. Pretenders like Murphy's came and went, but consistent investment in building a brand that looked like no other kept Guinness strong. There aren't many brands that enjoy seeing tourists actually spending money to buy copies of their adverts from seventy or eighty years ago.

Three for a tenner on Portobello Road
This brand strength has meant that Guinness can get away with charging pubs more than other beers. I've spoken to publicans who feel bitter, almost held to ransom, who believe they must have Guinness on their bar even if it means paying through the nose for it. And market research shows why: in the late nineties, more people claimed to drink Guinness than any other beer brand. Some of them may have only drunk it on one day of the year; others were simply lying - they liked to think of themselves as Guinness drinkers, or be seen by others as Guinness drinkers, even if they didn't actually like the taste. 

Things are different now. Brewers such as Brains, Fullers, and Wadworth are developing their own 4.0-4.2% nitrokeg stouts and discovering that Guinness is pretty easy to copy. When they put it on the bar, they're finding that these days, people who actually like the beer are OK not to have the brand - especially if their pint is a bit cheaper.

How did this happen?

Well, partly, it's that mainstream brands have become boring and commoditised across the board, and drinkers are increasingly confident to try something that hasn't been on the telly.

And partly it's that the iconic advertising lost its mojo. 

When you've made a commercial that is routinely voted as the best TV ad of all time (an early work by the director of this year's most talked about film) it's a hard act to follow.


The last decade and a bit has seen huge budget Guinness ads that have been very easily forgettable, with the possible exception of this one:


which always seemed to reappear a few months after the latest misguided spectacular had quietly disappeared.

But suddenly, the mojo seems to have come back. Possibly the two best commercials I've seen in the last year both turned out to be for Guinness.

The first one pulls you in and you hesitate, worried that you're going to like the film only for the rug to be pulled at the end and it turns out to be something cynical and cheesy. In fact the pay-off is quite moving, and fits perfectly with what Guinness wants to say about both itself and its drinkers.


And then there's this beauty, which starts off so good you think you're almost certainly going to be disappointed, and you're not - thoughtful, spectacular and bang on for a brand that's at least as popular in parts of Africa as it is in Ireland.


If you find this as compelling and beautiful as I do, you might also enjoy the five minute film they made:


These two are possibly the best beer ads we've seen in a decade. Whether they are enough to make Guinness as indispensable and irreplaceable as it once was, we'll have to wait and see. But I would imagine that the Paddy's Day toasts at St James's Gate are a little easier this year than they have been.

Oh, and there's one more beer bore cliché we have to get out of the way while talking about Guinness. If you think it's just a tasteless, bland brand produced by a big corporation that is scared of flavour and has no idea about how to get it into their beer, that's because you've fallen for the trap that there is only one Guinness. Last time I visited the brewery, we were given a tutored tasting of seven different Guinnesses that were all on sale at the time. If you do want a powerful stout that's up there with the very best, seek out Guinness Foreign Extra Stout:

One of the best stouts in the world.

At 7.5%, rich and complex with vinous notes and spiciness twining around the usual big blocks of coffee and chocolate flavour, it's a genuine classic that allegedly makes up over 40% of total Guinness sales worldwide. For those who take notice of these things, it scores 96% on Ratebeer and 91% on Beer Advocate.

Not bad for a dull, corporate global brand.

Slainte.

9 comments:

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

they’ve got green beer promised tonight in an Irish bar down the road from my hotel here in Florence…agree FES is one of the best stouts/beers in the world

Lyle said...

But why, why, why do they have to use 'Made of More'? Confident, strong brands exude/express a brand essence in everything they do and say, like the Sapeur ad does. Straplines are a sign of insecurity. If you need to say it, you aren't communicating it.

py said...

I quite like that Carlsberg cider commercial that takes the p out of Apple as well.

Gary Gillman said...

I've never seen FES, though, on draft much less bottle-conditioned. It is not easy to find in the U.S. and in some markets here (e.g. Canada) isn't sold at all.

Guinness should introduce a pre-flaked barley, pre-roasted barley strong stout and sell it on draft. That would change my mind about a drink that was once great and today is not (in general, IMO).

Gary

arn said...

I went to buy FES today but it seems that Tesco no longer sell it, certainly my mega-large tesco branch anyway.

John Medd said...

Before my head was turned by 'real' ale, whatever that is, I was a devout Guinness drinker. I still like the occasional pint now and again and agree with you totally about Guinness Foreign. I always thought Guinness missed a trick back in the day by not capitalising on Paul Ince's endorsement of their product.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Love the wheelchair ad and definitely went viral amongst non-beer geek friends on Facebook.

Always strikes me that Guinness could learn some lessons from Pilsner Urquell on wider promotion to beer geeks. Comparative tastings of international versions/unpasteurized versions/etc. There's a lot of material for them to work with...

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,
Just been reading 'Hops and Glory'. Very good.
Did you know that IPA was fermented really dry to limit secondary fermentation on the voyage?
Rgds,
Stu.

Gary Gillman said...

That was funny, the one about the wait from primeval times. Methinks the trio waited a touch too long though. I'd have alighted in about 1860. :)

Gary