Why not everything is in black and white

Wanted: a new image. That's the message coming out of the St James's Gate Brewery in Dublin.

Wanted: a new image. That's the message coming out of the St James's Gate Brewery in Dublin.

Guinness sales in Ireland are plummeting. Sales on its native heath dropped 8% in the year to June 30, and in the past eight years they have declined 27%.

Conversely, the amount of Guinness sold worldwide is actually expected to rise, as its parent company Diageo introduces the stout to more markets, particularly the seemingly insatiable Russian thirst.

However, the decline in Ireland is seen by many as undermining the brand itself.

Guinness is surely one of the best-known brands in the world, but it is increasingly being regarded as `an old man's drink'. And, in a marketplace already wobbling from the smoking ban in pubs (to be introduced in the UK in July 2007); strict drink-driving laws; greater consumption of wine; fears over binge drinking and take-home, cut-price lager from supermarkets, old men just can't compete.

Factor in the rise of whole new sectors, such as the rapidly-developing cider market - particularly the huge success story that is Magners - and you have a situation that needs addressing properly, as opposed to rapidly.

Brand expert Francis Eames worked in a freelance capacity for the Guinness global branding team in 2000 to help with its identity and he has forthright views on what he found during his three years there (though he stresses that in no way does he act as official spokesman for the company).

He says: "When I first got involved with Guinness, it was not good at innovation and as recently as 10 years ago there had been very little brand innovation at all.

"The brand had done well by creating a cool image for itself in the mid-1980s through the Rutger Hauer advertising etc, but it had begun to run out of steam by the mid-1990s and had to look at itself very hard to understand what the brand actually meant to people and how they could deliver it through innovative means.

"The whole drinks market had moved away from Guinness and it suffered through the development of huge budgets behind lager brands and the development of the whole bottled drinks sector - what started off life as alcopops but moved on to flavoured vodkas such as WKD, Red Square and Smirnoff Ice.

"A whole market for alcohol had changed and it wasn't necessarily a question of changing the product but changing the presentation and means of delivering it so it matches the needs of the market at the current time.

"Brands have to find this culture of innovation in order to develop. Brands just can't innovate in random ways - there are many thing things that aren't right for a brand and consumers instinctively know if that's something that it should or shouldn't do.

"Consumers will tell you through market research groups whether they think what you're doing fits the way the brand should be moving, and you have to listen because, ultimately, it's their brand.

"All innovation has to be consumer-driven - they're very bad at telling you what they want, but very good at telling you what you've done wrong - and it's the skill of the brand manager or the marketing director to understand their brand and to understand the consumers and to do that thinking for them.

"It's what the consumer wants that matters - if you don't give them that, they'll go off and find something else."

Francis's message seems to suggest that if you're not developing in pace with the rest of the world you're going backwards. Whether it's brand design in terms of graphics or the product that the brand encompasses, innovation is a key element in development.

Whilst you're not innovating, the world is moving on and you're gradually marginalised. If you don't move forward, your brand will remain relevant to the people who like it now but you won't develop new customers. Then your existing consumer base - your `old men' - will inevitably decline.

Everybody wants to be known as an innovator, but what if you're innovating up the wrong tree? Is there a difference between brand innovation and simple tinkering? Certainly, green Guinness for St Patrick's Day is pure whimsy, but it could be argued that the new `surger' home dispense system unveiled earlier this year could also fall into that category.

With this device you can `create the magic of Guinness Draught at home'.

At the touch of a button, the surger sends an ultra-sonic pulse through the glass, releasing the gases in the special beer which then settles into a smooth and creamy Guinness, much like, they say, the Guinness you'd get in the pub.

This is the alcoholic equivalent of the Breville sandwich toaster. You use it once, twice if you're bored, then it lies in the back of the cupboard, gathering dust and mouse droppings until something more `innovative' comes along.

At the same time, landlords are said to be removing their Guinness Extra Cold because it's `tasteless'. Consumers feel confused and a whole generation of would-be drinkers gets discouraged and eventually walks out of the queue.

Mark Griffiths, who wrote the highly entertaining book Guinness Is Guinness, The Colourful Story of a Black And White Brand (Cyan Books £7.99), sums the stout conundrum up neatly. First he asks how you perceived Guinness when you were first introduced to it.

He says: "You walk into a pub, you see a beer on the bar. It's black and bitter, like mud in a glass.

"You're 18 years old and none of your mates drinks it, so why should you? Yet there's something strangely attractive about it. Never mind, there's no time to wait. Another day, maybe. You've your whole life ahead of you.

"It may be the case that Guinness sales are still diving in Ireland where, in the decade before I wrote the book, it was true to say that it was becoming an older man's drink.

"This is another way of saying that fewer people in the younger, upcoming generations were taking to it regularly as their drink of choice.

"The emergence of the Irish economy, the rise in the number of young people and the appearance of more and better marketed premium lagers - and ciders - has meant greater choice where, before, things were just black and white.

"So, most of the marketing in Ireland is focused on events or occasions - sporting and cultural phenomena, as I noted in the book. Strangely, that's how it's becoming with me too - Guinness is an occasional drink, because there's so much else to consider now."

Guinness inhabits a world where people no longer ask for a glass of wine: they ask for chardonnay or pinot grigio. To cater for our more learned friends, Guinness introduced a mid-strength `Toucan' brew which has been described as sweeter and less bitter than the traditional stout.

Innovation may be everything, but could this be yet another initiative that is basically flawed? Guinness drinkers continue to be urged to remain loyal to the nostalgia factor for their enjoyment of the traditional draught but, unless you're over 50, nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.

And that's when cider over ice becomes much more of an attractive proposition.

alastair.gilmour@ncjmedia.co.uk

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