It was reported recently that Guinness had overtaken Carling* to become, for the first time, the best-selling beer brand in the UK. The makers of Carling were quick to point out that they were still selling more in volume terms, but of course this is an admission that Guinness, which is only 0.1% ABV stronger, was achieving a price premium over them.
One of the reasons behind this is that Diageo, the owners of Guinness, have over the years been very assiduous in protecting and developing the image of their product. They have linked it to sport, particularly Rugby Union, they have stressed its Irish heritage and they have protected its position as a premium product by doing their best to avoid deep discounting. They have successfully avoided any connotations of it being an old man’s drink, despite flying in the face of modern trends by being a dark beer, and they have come up with some of the most memorable and iconic advertising of any alcohol brand.
Possibly this is helped by the fact that Guinness is the only major beer brand in Diageo’s portfolio, so they can concentrate single-mindedly on it, whereas if it belonged to a brewing conglomerate attention might be diluted. This can be compared with Stella Artois, which in the 1980s enjoyed a similar position as a respected premium product, but where the brand equity has steadily been undermined by its owners through cheapening the recipe and reducing the strength, to the extent that it is just another commodity product today.
The result is that Guinness, more than any other mass-market beer, is seen as being a cool product in pubs and bars, and very much something they have to stock. In a group of people, the choice of where to go may well be determined by the Guinness drinker objecting to the place that doesn’t stock it, just as the cask drinker would. Any pub not offering Guinness will have to contend with the problem of people asking for it by name, and then having to explain “we have XXX stout, which we think is better”, just as other cola brands had to cope with customers asking for Coke. Anyone remember “It’s McDonald’s cola, is that OK?”
This means that trying to compete with Guinness is an uphill struggle. If you are a brewer with your own pub estate, you have a captive market, and Sam Smith’s have produced their own Extra Stout for years, which many people view as superior to Guinness. Holt’s have recently emulated them with Trailblazer Stout. They have also replaced all mass-market lagers with their own products. And BrewDog have recently launched their own Black Heart stout which no doubt will find favour in craft-oriented bars. But if you’re a pubco or free trader with no brewery links, ditching Guinness may seem a foolhardy move.
Guinness is often defeated by competitor products in blindfolded taste tests, such as this one carried out by Holt’s for Trailblazer. The same was true of Coke vs Pepsi. But in fact in a blind test people tend to pick out the option with the strongest flavour, which isn’t necessarily reflected in decisions across the bar. In fact, one of Guinness’s key attractions is that it is relatively bland and inoffensive, so it doesn’t put too many people off. The same is true of top-selling brands of any products. Competitor stouts tend to emphasise the roastiness more, which may appeal to beer aficionados, but is likely to deter many mainstream drinkers. I have to say I’m not really a fan of roasty beers and, while I like dark mellow ales, I tend to steer clear of cask stouts for that reason.
Possibly this news also says something about the health of the lager market. Some people have speculated that, just as bitter superseded mild as the leading beer, and lager in its turn superseded bitter, something else will eventually take over from lager. In reality, I don’t really see this happening. These changes occurred in an insular British beer market, whereas pale lager has become the default beer worldwide. In a sense, Britain was just belatedly catching up with the rest of world.
But there’s no denying that the lager sector is looking distinctly tired. The concocted Spanish lager Madri looks less like a brilliant innovation and more like a last desperate throw of the dice. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the established lager brands are lacklustre products that for whatever reason don’t live up to the original beers they’re based on. They’re increasingly seen as just interchangeable commodity brands. The one exception is Peroni, which is intrinsically a pretty good beer and where the brand owners seem to have taken a leaf out of Guinness’s strategy book. And maybe what the sector needs is for the existing brands to be cherished on a long-term bases rather than constantly looking for a new gimmick.
* It would be interesting to know what Carling itself superseded in the 70s or 80s