The brand-building brilliance of Guinness: brand boss shares recipe for lasting success

Guinness's advertising has been showered with plaudits over the years, including seeing its beloved 'Surfer' spot being voted 'best ad of all time' in a 2002 Channel 4 public vote.

The long-term quality and consistency of the brand's marketing messaging, which has never wavered in recent decades, has now been rewarded with another major accolade: Guinness has been named winner of The Drum Marketing Awards' Investment in Brand category, sponsored by the FT.

In response to the award, its global brand director Grainne Wafer sat down with the FT's global marketing director, commercial, David Buttle, to talk about building a brand over the long term, and how to manage that while navigating major short-term challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I'm a Dubliner so I have a very personal connection with the Guinness brand,” says Wafer, referencing how the drink's advertising inspired her to become a marketer – testament to just how long it has been getting its messaging right.

“[...You] think about the Guinness brand and the core values it stands for, which is about the strength of the brand, the strength of the product, and the strength of character of the people who drink us. And also the goodness of the brand, the philanthropic legacy, but also the quality of the beer. And of course communion, which is the third value that it stands for, through the connection between Guinness drinkers and Guinness and its communities around the world.”

As to why the Diageo-owned stout's campaigns have resonated so deeply over the years, Wafer believes that it is because of its “high benchmark” for creativity and a “little touch of something magic” that only Guinness would produce.

“We use that to guide the ambition for work and like lots of the things by Guinness, it's inspired by a bit of our history as well, because back in the 1920s, actually the very first Guinness ad, a brave marketeer went into the office of Rupert Guinness, as it was back then, with a great idea to do some advertising for Guinness.

"We only allow that to happen if the quality of the advertising is as good as the quality of the beer. And again, that's a really been a principle that we hold ourselves to both the quality of our beer being second to none, but also the quality of our work being second to none…

"We've a track record of telling great human stories and over generations of Guinness advertising, and whether that's things like Gareth Thomas… whether it's the most recent work with the Japanese rugby team, and to coincide with the Rugby World Cup, there were lots of amazing stories that people can really connect to, guided by those values of the brand."

Wafer talks about the competitiveness of the beer category and the recent ‘explosion’ of craft beers across Britain and Ireland, but adds that the Guinness strategy has been to focus on its distinctiveness and salience which she believes continues to help it stand out.

“Guinness is a very distinctive brand. It's a beer made more for people and alongside that sort of sense of distinctiveness, we bring consistency.”

She adds that the plan is always to stay with a ‘simple formula’ for its campaigns, with the nature of the creative always changing gradually. “When you think about ‘Made of More’, it's actually evolved over the last eight years. We've moved it from being a campaign that was led by a metaphor into a campaign which tells human stories and it is now a campaign that's trying to hit some cultural touch points as well.

“It's about distinctively driving salience and making sure that we are building that distinctive nature of the Guinness brand fully on all touchpoints. And obviously consumers are changing across time as well, how they're engaging in content has changed and it's moved from being a simple broadcast model to really thinking about every touchpoint right through to participation and how brands are being experienced in bars, homes, etc… It's not just an advertising idea, it's actually a full brand idea.”

She adds that the consistency of the brand, even during challenging periods over its 260 years, such as the recent period of lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak, has helped the marketing messages stay true to the brand and the product. She cites St Patrick’s Day, the biggest day of the year for the brand, which was not able to be celebrated physically this year and therefore hurt draft sales like never before. But the brand worked up and distributed a responsive campaign in record time.

“We had to move very quickly in terms of changing our content, changing our messaging to really support our customers at that time, underlining the importance of staying home and the importance of staying safe and also reminding people that there will come a time when bars reopen and when people can safely socialise again. We edited our ad in a matter of 24 hours - 48 hours, the US did an incredible job to put out the inspiring message of ‘we will march again.’

“It's a very consistent strategy that is adapting quickly in real-time. Another thing that obviously has changed is behind the scenes, we have been putting a huge effort into the quality of the beer, and really making sure that when bars and pubs do reopen that consumers across the world will have the freshest, most beautiful Guinness that they've ever had. That's a huge focus behind the scenes. It's not just about the ads, it's about the logistics. It's about the full supply chain and making sure our beer is really wonderful as well.”

As a result of consumer habits changing under lockdown, Guinness saw an explosion of user generated content being produced which encouraged the brand to begin to host Instagram live events for brewers to talk about their experiences and processes.

One Guinness campaign that gained a large amount of praise recently was actually a spec advert featuring a sofa against a black backdrop which resembled a pint of Guinness, encouraging people to stay at home, and created not by the brand or its agencies but as part of a One Minute Brief challenge.

“We contacted the creator as we felt it really had the right notion in terms of landing a very serious message of staying home staying safe, but actually doing it with a smile as well. It’s been a very interesting couple of months and you have to move in with greater agility but you also have to really stay true to what you're about as a brand and draw on those roots as well.”

As to what is to come next from the brand, Wafer says that supporting its customers and keeping them safe is paramount.

“We know from our social channels that people are really looking forward to that first sip of a delicious cold pint of Guinness, wherever they are in the world and we want to make sure that we reflect that sentiment appropriately as we build those plans…

"Arthur [Guinness] signed a 9000 year lease on the Guinness brewery over 260 years ago, so we like to say that we're a brand that has 260 years of history behind us, but 9000 years of optimism ahead, so there will be plenty of great creative work, great creativity, greater agility, and great insight emerging from our campaigns over the coming periods."

Guinness won the Investment in Brand Award following a poll conducted by The Drum taking suggestions of brands from its readers and jurors of The Drum Marketing Awards, who were also called upon the decide the winner from the resulting shortlist.

The full conversation, including Wafer discussing the heritage of the brand’s advertising in more depth and sharing some views on the results of the campaign work, can be viewed on the Can-Do Festival website.

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