legends of the dark black

guinness

A few weeks ago, over on the wonderful Noisy Decent Graphics, Ben shared some history relating to the oldest logo still in use today.

He came to the conclusion that it’s the S.P.Q.R. mark, which dates back to Ancient Roman times:

spqr

This started me thinking about the world’s longest surviving brands.

The world’s major religions – Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – would probably all make it into the top 10.

Surprisingly, this Wikipedia page suggests that they might be joined by a few hotel brands.

Less surprising was the fact that breweries would probably make the list too; I can think of a few beer brands that have been around for more than a couple of centuries.

Perhaps the best example of this is Guinness – a brand which, fittingly, celebrates its 250th birthday this week.

It’s by no means the world’s oldest beer brand, but it’s certainly one of the most widely recognised; indeed, it enjoys such cult status that people happily wear Guinness T-shirts, even if they’re not big fans of the drink.

So what is it that has helped Guinness to survive and continue growing for so long, and what can other brands learn from its success?

Here are a few thoughts:

The brand is a story

Many people still believe that the recipe for Guinness was discovered by accident when Arthur accidentally burnt a batch of his normal brew. The story goes that he sold this batch at a discount to porters at the local docks, who all came back asking for more. Regardless of whether this story is true*, it’s exactly the kind of trivia that the brand’s core consumers love to share in pubs and bars, inspiring talkability at the point of purchase and consumption.

In a similar vein, I’ve heard many people retell the more accurate story that Guinness was regularly prescribed to new mothers, people who gave blood, those with heart conditions, and for a variety of other ailments. A variety of functional qualities, not least the drink’s high iron content, mean that many people still believe the brand’s historic claim that “Guinness is Good For You.”

The product is highly distinctive

In a market saturated with hundreds of lager brands that all look, smell, and taste the same, Guinness offers something different. It’s thick, dark, and bitter, and as a consequence, it stands apart from all the competing offers at the bar.

What’s more, outlets invariably serve Guinness in distinctive, branded glassware – vessels so prized that drinkers often ‘forget’ to return them once they’ve finished their pint.

It’s part of numerous consumption rituals

To many people, Guinness is Ireland, and vice versa. Every year, people make a point of visiting bars on March 17th to drink a Guinness in honour of St Patrick. A good proportion of them will do so in an Irish Pub – another ‘brand’ which has successfully travelled the globe, invariably taking Guinness with it.

And then there’s the product ritual itself. The real Guinness pour – ‘119.53 seconds to perfection’ – is a brand ritual like no other. It’s an unparalleled intangible social object, reinforced by barstaff and brand fans the world over. Not only is the ritual observed, but people share the story themselves, citing the brand’s famous “good things come to those who wait” explanation.

Crucially, consumers can be a part of all these occasions – indeed, the brand is often merely a facilitator in their occasions – and that draws people deeper into the brand’s franchise.

It delivers a strong expressive (emotional) benefit

Guinness is often seen as a ‘real man’s beer’. The strong, bitter taste takes some getting used to, and more than a couple of pints in one sitting requires determination. The associations vary subtly by culture, but most relate to strength, courage, and masculinity, as well as a sense of mystery and intrigue.

It delivers inconic communications

The brand has built on its talkability through a long-standing association with iconic advertising. From the famous “Guinness is Good For You” slogan and the instantly recognisable toucan, to more modern incarnations such as the Rutger Hauer “Pure Genius” campaign and the award-winning surfer (both below), Guinness’s advertising regularly inspires conversations.

Guinness toucan

It’s an experience

It’s hard to rush Guinness, even if you could find a reason to want to. It’s a stout that’s meant to be savoured, not guzzled. The rituals, the distinctive glassware, the experiential settings all combine to make a Guinness so much more than a “quick pint”. Because of this, Guinness actually helps the drinker to slow down, which makes it a relevant choice at the end of a long day.

It’s tasty

While taste is a matter of subjective interpretation, it’s unlikely the brand would sell 1 billion pints around the world each year if it didn’t tickle the right taste buds. And that makes a big difference; no matter how much hype surrounds a brand, if it delivers fundamental utility, it stands a better chance of surviving in the long run.

I’m sure I won’t be alone in raising a glass (or two) in celebration of the Dark Black on September 24th.

*Apparently this story is pure legend, but I think I’ll stick with it anyway.
Remember that alcohol is only fun in moderation – don’t ruin the occasion by having too much.

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1 Response to “legends of the dark black”


  1. 1 Judy Stephenson November 10, 2011 at 15:04

    Guinness’s early & mid 20th century advertising is a great case of long term effectiveness of creativity if ever you need one


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