This Much I Learned: The DNA of Guinness and why that matters in 2023

Guinness is on a roll, with sales on the up and a recent claim to be UK’s favourite pint. In this latest episode of This Much I Learned, two of architects of that success, Grainne Wafer and Neil Shah, discuss how the brand’s past informs the present.

Guinness is a brand which needs little introduction among marketers or consumers. For marketers, the success of the brand’s marketing over decades is widely held up as best practice, as detailed in a recent column from Mark Ritson. 

For consumers, a black-and-white pint is inextricably linked to Guinness. Indeed, Kantar ranks Guinness as the UK’s most distinctive beer brand and the fifth most distinctive overall. This distinctiveness and brand power among consumers has clearly translated into commercial success, with parent company Diageo recently claiming the beer has become the UK’s most popular in the on-trade.

Ritson described Guinness as benefiting from the magic combination of being an exceptional brand in itself but also having an “exceptional group of marketers” behind it.

In the latest episode of Marketing Week’s This Much I Learned podcast, two of those “exceptional marketers” Diageo’s global director of beer, Smirnoff and Bailey’s, Grainne Wafer and head of Guinness GB, Neil Shah discuss why the Irish stout has and continues to be a success story.

Guinness has been in existence since 1759 and the history of the brand is a crucial “thread” which runs through everything it does, says Wafer.

Founder Arthur Guinness was an innovator and philanthropist, whose spirit of doing things differently and with a spirit of goodness has informed the brand’s outlook on all it does up until this present day, the pair explain.

While the ideas of “power, goodness and community” can be linked back to the very beginnings of the brand, the Guinness family were initially skeptical about the concept of advertising.

It’s not about ripping up the rulebook, it’s about building on it.

Neil Shah, Guinness

Wafer describes how, in 1929, a group of employees had to essentially pitch an unconvinced Edward Guinness the idea of advertising the stout. Guinness was eventually convinced, but on one condition: the quality of the advertising had to be as good as the quality of the product.

This remains a “rallying cry” for the brand’s marketers and challenges them to think about the craft of their work, she says.

Guinness is a brand which has an incredibly strong history, but one that also manages to remain relevant to a modern world.

“It’s not about ripping up the rulebook, it’s about building on it,” says Shah.

Innovation has played a crucial part of building Guinness’s future, and Shah highlights Guinness 0.0 and its Nitrosurge products as two innovations which allow the brand to meet the consumers need, whether that need is a non-alcoholic alternative or the ability to replicate how a pint is served in the pub at home.

Consumer research and insight is a key part of this ability to meet consumers’ needs, he says. With Wafer adding that the brand has learnt “to really interrogate the consumer benefit” of innovation before launching after previous less successful new product launches.

While Guinness is a multi-faceted success story, the secret to its marketing is, just like the pint itself, black-and-white, says Wafer.

“The truth of marketing is that it’s a simple strategy executed consistently with good investment levels, with evaluation and learning that optimises that over time,” she says.

From opening up about mental health issues to closing the career confidence gap, you can listen to previous episodes of Marketing Week’s This Much I Learned podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud and Spotify.