In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, this feature is a little outside of what I would normally consider my professional wheelhouse. When Guinness invites you to Ireland for a week of discovery at one of the world's oldest brewing operations, you have a hard time turning them down. This is TBE Special folks, pictures and all, and I'm proud to offer a photographic and literary journey on our thoughts, opinions, and marketing insights regarding Guinness, their brand, and the future of this global institution. A special thanks to Guinness for the amazing week, one which I hope to experience again sooner than later. Good Craic!
(Click on any of the pictures to expand them to their full glory)
What are you supposed to tell a beer company that's been brewing beer for 256 years that they haven't heard before? They rode the curve before the curve even existed, and they've built a global empire on an inherently black liquid that is, and I stress this for the nonbelievers out there, not a heavy beer. No one knows everything, and we can always use an extra few ounces of insight, but after my whirlwind visit to Dublin, they certainly had one or two things to tell me. And have me drink as well.
Your brand is more than your visual mark on the world. It's the invisible mindshare that you maintain when the conversation gets quiet. It's a perception of why you're doing what you're doing, and while a strict definition is an exercise in futility, it remains to be one of the most crucial parts of anything resembling a successful enterprise. Guinness, in my professional opinion, has an amazing brand. I'll geek out hard on it all day. They have the most iconic and widely distributed alcoholic product on earth, and astoundingly, they've spent the entirety of their company's history completely defying what I would consider to be a product categorization. For good or bad, there's no stout, no porter, no beer. It's just called Guinness, and that brand has become an all-powerful thing to this company in the modern age.
My latest adventure through Dublin taught me a significant amount about the history of the city, jogging my brain into remembering a few things I'd (thought I had) long since forgotten since my last visit to Ireland. Luckily, it's still a country of absolutely lovely people. The dry, warm wit seems to flow through the cities and townships as easily as the rain, and that famous Irish empathy, the unspoken love for your countryman, is a simple and powerful recognition of someone else's humanity, and it's as ubiquitous as the sheep that dot the verdant glens and valleys across the isle. The unnecessary hubris that can consistently plague the American ethos seems to have faded, even marginally, from their shores, and this distinct lack of ego makes for a peaceful life. No one is perfect, but the Irish have come to epitomize much of what we should all strive to be, as great citizens and good neighbors.
Arthur Guinness, the namesake founder of the company, had 21 children, all to the same woman, Olivia Whitmore, his wife. 21 children. That's mildly indicative of the time period, but incredible nonetheless.
Our adventure through Guinness' past and present was a in-depth look at where the company started, it's significance to the history and development of Dublin, and their role in today's global brewing industry. Ostensibly, the United States represents one of their largest markets outside of Ireland, and while Guinness will always hold a special place on the American cultural landscape, this hasn't translated to a positive growth trajectory for their products in the past few years. Local consumption, educated consumer palates, and the sheer number of American craft breweries is taking its toll on their bottom line. Guinness is pushing to innovate into new consumer segments, finding the happy place between their flagship products and their perceived thought leadership in brewing.
To understand Guinness, you have to understand the way their people approach great beer. From what I saw, and spoke about, Guinness takes a long view on what it means to be a brewer. Their brewers, like Peter Simpson (above left) work their way up the chain through hard work and a thoroughly exhaustive knowledge of beer. Having spoken to their team over a few days, I got the distinct impression that these people really knew what they were doing. I mean...really knew it. Got it. Fundamentally understood the past, present, and envisioned future of what beer should be. It was an impressive vision and an inspiring energy that came through with each conversation.
But...while Americans come from the land that essentially invented the homebrewer-to-probrewer career path, the brewers at Guinness saw great beer through a definitively different, possibly more European lens, highlighting an ingrained reverence for classic beer styles and pushing the creative envelope on a slower and more measured timeline. The promo video below, featuring Peter, puts a bow on my point. From a marketing standpoint, I didn't see the attitude and messaging of this video reflected in their general communication to us during the week. If Guinness truly wants to position themselves as the creative, do-anything brewer with a rich heritage, they would do well to make this sort of messaging more prevalent in the States.
Not to say I didn't see the inspiring side of their business. This company has a long history of being pioneers in the beer industry and a steward of great business in Ireland. They were the first company in Ireland to offer their employees health benefits, and housing, and a great work environment. The company has donated enormous public spaces in Dublin, including the very pretty St. Stephen's Green highlighed in stunning fall foliage above. They are proud of their country's agrarian expertise, buying almost 2/3 (that's pronounced "two turds", for the record) of Ireland's entire annual barley crop. They were one of the first beer company's to ship their liquid globally, and they employed quality controllers in each country as early as 175 years ago. The QC's job was to try the guinness in each region of the country and report back to HQ on it. What a job eh?
They were the first company to mix nitrogen with their beer. They invented the nitrogenated beer. The list goes on and on, and it outlines the same story I saw over and over again that week. Guinness knows what they're doing, and they love what they're doing. As I stated at the beginning of this article, they've ridden the curve long before the rest of us even caught wind of it. All due respect to a company that gets it, from one beer lover to another.
So what does a 256 year learning curve look like? It looks like Ireland's #1 tourist attraction. The Guinness Storehouse, built to impress, is a nice tribute to the company's place in history. The lovely staff, educated beer specialists, and possibly the most delicious pints of Guinness available anywhere in the world all contribute to well-hyped good vibes. The brewery's history is as much about making stout as it is their hilariously irreverent marketing and messaging. The original artist at Guinness, the famous John Gilroy, came up with all the crazy toucans, ostriches, turtles, and all manner of completely random creatures that you see all over their iconic ads and posters. What does a toucan have to do with a Irish stout? Nothing. Nothing at all. But you'll remember it.
Turning a ship as big as Guinness is not as easy task, and this is where we come back to the idea of their storytelling and positioning in the U.S. Initiatives around innovation are necessary for their brand these days...but how does that play out? What are the considerations that should go into huge strategic decisions like that?
One of their best tools, it would seem, is the new Open Gate Brewery. It's a center of innovation at St. James Gate that stands alone from their normal brewing operation. This pilot brewery, opened only a few days when we arrived there, is a corporate commitment to the new evolution and approach to great beer. This was the draught list the day we got there.
And guys...this beer was like...pretty darn good. The Hophouse 13 is a hop-forward lager (sort of...I believe it's a "lager" that uses their proprietary ale yeast strain, so call it what you want) that would proudly stand next to almost any modern American craft offering. The Imperial Dunkel was fantastic as well, slightly sweet, smooth, with a lingering grassy finish that never gets unpleasant. Milk Stouts, Red Ales...the list goes on.
And then the mildly controversial Guinness Nitro IPA. I had it at a launch event here in New York City a few months ago, and I had it again at the brewery in Ireland. I say it's "mildly controversial" because of the current rhetoric I've heard about it's launch here in the States. Yes...they brewed it only for the American market and our pioneering love of hoppy beer. Yes...it's poured using same nitrogen system that the stout is poured through. Yes...it's ok. It's just not "Guinness" as folks know it, so naturally they're pushing back. I've worked with breweries who don't understand the feedback loop associated with innovation, and Guinness is probably not surprised by the initial feedback they've received since the launch. It's not my favorite IPA, and it should probably just be called "Guinness Pale", given its flavor profile. "IPA" means something very specific to the American consumer, and this beer immediately sets the wrong expectation. It's sort of like you were expecting expecting Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, but then you got plain old vanilla. I guess I don't have high hopes. It's not a bad beer, and like everything, it's all about lens you view it through, so we'll see there.
This isn't their first foray into additional product lines and craft-style beers, but it seems to be the right place at the right time. The Brewer's Project, which is what they're calling this entire program (the pilot brewery, the new beers, the product launches, etc), is a sincere attempt at showing, not just telling, their expertise in beer. They don't have the modern conception of crafty credentials that we might be used to, and they'll always have to fight the image of being a corporate goliath in a growing sea of small-batch craft producers. But given the right set of circumstances, the right messaging, and the best storytelling they can muster, they might be able to put out a product that resonates with the demographic driving the trends in beer today. They don't want to fade quietly into the background as that beer you see in every Irish pub. They're not just a foamy glass of Irish yesteryear. They want a slice of the action, and this is definitively viable attempt at building that narrative inclusively, tying in a rich heritage with an astute awareness of what it means to continue building a brand 256 years in the making.
I had a great time in Ireland, at Guinness, and I can see that it's an exciting time ahead for their crew. This is the sort of branding challenge that industry professionals like me get a kick out of, and it's fun to think about how the execution would go down. I have always loved Guinness Stout, and I probably always will. I also love local beer here in the states. Unlike a lot of newfound craft fans, I can see the both sides, and I don't have blinders on when it comes to the way a business works. Let's see what Guinness can do with this new strategy, and let's hope we get back to Ireland again soon...I'm thirsty.