There’s no advantage in change for change’s sake

The rash of brand extensions and spin-offs is a poor substitute for real marketing. It has now gone so far that Guinness is undermining its own USP. By Sean Brierley

Guinness has decided to attract younger customers by brewing a pint that can be poured in 15 seconds. All it needs to do now is soften the taste, remove the creamy head, turn the colour from black to golden brown and change the name from Guinness to “Stella Artois” and it might have a chance. Better still, how about a funky, meaningless name, like “Lagaviva”?

Guinness has tried to lure younger consumers before, of course, when it introduced Guinness Extra Cold. But this is different. This time it is changing the core product.

It’s a risky strategy and Diageo is obviously apprehensive. The 15-second pump is being considered for use in “busier outlets only”.

There are numerous examples of brands like The Daily Telegraph and The Express trying to use product innovations to attract new demographic groups – and failing dismally.

They are doomed because young men do not want to drink or read what their dad drinks or reads – no matter how “cool” the brand is. Equally, those who already drink Guinness love the quirkiness of their pint, because they’re fully paid-up members of the awkward squad.

But that’s by the bye. The real problem with this Guinness development is that Diageo, like many other companies, is using “innovation” as a substitute for a marketing strategy.

The cult of innovation is now so mainstream in modern marketing that industry circumlocutionists are having a hard time coming up with new naff phrases to sell it.

The latest guru to try is Rob Sutton. He is pushing his book, Weird Ideas That Work. In it he repurposes (dot-com-speak for rehashing) clichés such as “thinking outside the box”, and uses folksy language to say that, to succeed, companies must do what nobody else is doing. This means taking risks and promoting risk-takers.

Sutton’s homespun insights include: “It is not enough to make one thing well and sell it at a profit. Sooner or later a competitor will steal or better your design, or undercut you, or all three. In any case you die. The Holy Grail of business success is therefore a steady stream of new ideas that sell.”

There is nothing like stating the obvious. But his conclusion essentially supports the innovationists: if ten products are launched and only one succeeds, then launching the ten products was a good plan.

He performs linguistic gymnastics to suggest that companies adopt “vu ja de”. This is apparently “déjÃÂ vu” in reverse, and means seeing old things in new ways. The reverse of the phrase “arse my all” comes to mind.

Sutton believes that failure is good for a company because it helps that company to learn.

One company that has been good at failure recently is Procter & Gamble. Sutton told The Times that P&G sent some Proctoids to call on him in Palo Alto (where else?) where they “practically parroted his book, saying they wanted to fail more, they told him they wanted more new products to make it to supermarket shelves and flop there, rather then dying like doomed film scripts in development.”

It seems that there is a large amount of post-rationalising going on here. P&G has already been “vu ja de”-ing all over the place and supermarket shelves are littered with its flops. Sunny Delight is a classic instance. The fact that P&G’s marketers managed to get the benefits of Sunny Delight so wrong – they said there were some – seriously damaged the P&G brand. But Sutton and P&G seem to be focusing on making the mistakes, rather than learning the lessons.

P&G should have taken a lead from Ribena about matching marketing expectations to the product’s capabilities, especially in such a fraught area as children’s health. But no, they went ahead and “vu ja de”-ed.

The cult of innovation focuses on satisfying consumers’ desire for newness, rather than delivering any extra benefit. The basic problem with this is a failure to think about innovation in terms of brand development.

Many companies see innovation as a way to patch up a brand’s faults, gain customers or steal a march on competitors. None of these are appropriate. Innovation should be about improving the existing brand for existing customers.

Innovations need a demonstrable benefit to succeed. This is not only true for packaged goods brands: London Mayor Ken Livingstone is planning to introduce an innovation to London. Congestion charges will almost certainly fail, because no one will see any benefit in them.

Advertising will sing the scheme’s praises and explain the mechanics, but when Londoners see no discernible decrease in traffic – Oxford Street has a car ban, but is still one of the most congested streets in London – and find that the buses and Tubes are more overcrowded than usual, no amount of ad money will save the Mayor.

By contrast, there is one obvious benefit in Guinness’ innovation: its drinkers will not have to wait three lifetimes for their pint to settle.

Hold on a minute though. Wasn’t the wait – along with the fact that it tastes like a hod-carrier’s welly – Guinness’ unique selling proposition? Wasn’t it also the main point in the commercials – which were also judged the greatest of all time by Channel 4 viewers?

What we have here is a monumental reversal of communications strategy. It is also a shocking admission of defeat. The strategy of trying to convince consumers that a long wait is a virtue was fundamentally flawed. It fell into the classic USP trap of creating product differentiation without any discernible benefit.

The company has spent so long pushing that USP as a benefit that it will probably take three lifetimes to repair the damage. Never mind: good things come to those who wait.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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