The Sisterhood

For anyone over the age of 18, the Murphy’s “I’m not bitter…” ads stand out as one of the best beer advertising campaigns of the past decade, alongside Stella Artois’ “Reassuringly Expensive” series and just about any Holsten Pils ads.

First aired in 1993 and directed by Alan Parker, fresh from his success with feelgood movie The Commitments, the Murphy’s ads, with their witty laid-back observations of small-town Irish life, gave what had been something of an also-ran rival to Guinness its own distinct identity, and helped dramatically increase sales.

But markets change, and by 1998 the Whitbread Beer Company had recognised that the “I’m not bitter…” campaign had outlived its usefulness. Out went the knowing young Irish male commentator on life – and in came the Sisters of Murphy’s…

It’s easy for those outside a company’s marketing department to dismiss radical changes in advertising strategy as the work of a new marketing director trying to seize ownership of a brand. But that was very definitely not the case with Murphy’s – and Jo Franks, marketing manager for Murphy’s, can produce market research to prove it.

Franks says: “The ‘I’m not bitter…’ campaign had been running for five years and had been highly successful. It helped differentiate Murphy’s as less bitter and more laid-back. But we needed to move on, because the stout market has changed. It is no longer enough just to challenge Guinness – we now have to compete against all beers and lagers.”

A study conducted for Whitbread by Informer Interactive Research, a specialist in the youth market, showed that Murphy’s was now widely accepted as a viable alternative drink for a restful weekend lunch – but it was not considered suitable for inclusion as a Friday night clubbing drink.

The brand had also lost some of its distinctiveness, because other smooth, creamy beers had been launched, while the whole stout category was in danger of being dismissed by younger drinkers as old-fashioned. As Franks explains: “Murphy’s had become a Sunday lunchtime drink with your dad. We knew we’d have difficulty making it a Friday night beer, but we thought we could at least get Wed-nesday lunchtime or even Thurs- day evening into the repertoire.”

Murphy’s marketing had to be retargeted to focus on 18- to-25-year-old males, narrowing the previous campaign’s reach, which had shaded up towards 35-year-olds.

Whitbread and Informer tackled the problem in three stages.

In the first stage – which Franks calls “working out the lay of the land” – they had to examine where the Murphy’s brand was in terms of market share and positioning; where stouts in general were; and where the overall beer market was.

This started with brainstorming sessions involving all concerned: © the Murphy’s marketing team; Whitbread’s on- and off-trade sales staff; the company’s research and development personnel; Whitbread’s agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty; below-the-line agency The Works; and, of course, Informer Interactive Research.

In stage two, the Murphy’s team had to concentrate on how beer advertising worked in general and how consumers saw the Murphy’s campaign in particular. Here, they started by using qualitative research with consumer groups to gain specific guidance on using advertising to reposition the brand, and then assessed consumer reaction to some rough initial treatments.

Martin Pasco, associate director of Informer, explains how the qualitative research was conducted.

“We talked to lager repertoire drinkers and stout advocates – broadly, 18-to-35-year-old male beer drinkers in London and Manchester. The groups were a mixture of ‘friendship’ and standard group discussions.”

Pasco says “friendship” groups, which, as the name suggests, are made up of consumers who would normally drink together, are “much more relaxed and help us get to the heart of the matter more quickly”. The qualitative groups were conducted either in consumers’ homes or in pubs and bars.

There had been some initial blindfold taste testing of different beers to get an idea of what consumers meant when they said a pint was “smooth” or “bitter”, for example, but these had to be conducted in hotel rooms, because of the need for refrigeration.

Stage three involved testing and refining the new creative treatments developed by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which had also been responsible for the “I’m not bitter…” campaign.

Unusually for a market research project like this, the Murphy’s study not only involved the same market research consultancy for all three stages, but many of the same consumers. As Franks says: “Because they got so familiar with the brand and what we were trying to do, at the end the consumers were even coming up with some ideas of their own. It gave us a real insight into drinkers’ imagery.”

The research suggested that there was considerable affection for the brand (and for the old ad campaign), but that if it was to break out of Sunday lunchtime, it needed to be given more energy. Whitbread also established that a drinker’s choice of beer was seen by the target age group as a key communicator of masculinity and reinforcer of self-image. Franks comments: “This gave us an explicit idea of the idealised Murphy’s drinker.”

The results of all this research? Out went the laid-back, gentle humour of the “I’m not bitter…” campaign, with its central young, wry male Murphy’s drinker observing the quirks of Irish life, and in came the Sisters – three ordinary Irish colleens by day, but when danger strikes (danger being defined as anything which threatens a somewhat laddish young Murphy’s drinker and his ability to enjoy his favourite pint), black leather-clad superwomen able to tackle any problem…

Still witty, but much more in the style of Loaded magazine, with overt references to cult classic TV series, such as Charlie’s Angels and the Avengers, the new commercials are very obviously more in tune with the late Nineties than the previous campaign.

But how can Whitbread tell if the new ads are having the desired effect? Research, of course. The introductory 40-second ad was shown from October 14 to the beginning of November, with the three 20-second executions (building on vignettes featured in the 40-second commercial) running from the beginning of November to the end of December.

Franks says that post-tracking research is being conducted at the moment on the effects of the ads: but results from Whitbread’s overall tracking study, covering all its brands – conducted at the end of October – showed that 32 per cent of all 18- to 60-year-olds recognised the Sisters of Murphy’s ads, with 48 per cent saying they were enjoyable.

Other research by HPI on the finished ads in December concluded that there was a “very encouraging response to the Sisters campaign”. As Franks explains: “Research showed us that if Murphy’s was to survive, we had to go beyond just Irishness.”

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