Dark days for the black stuff

Pub closures, the beer market's decline and impatient drinkers prompts Guinness to try new strategies
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The Independent Online

John Roscoe has a wonderful job. As GB brand manager for Guinness he sups the creamy stout and dreams up new ways of making money from one of the British Isles' most historic and characterful brands. But the genial marketeer has a problem: ranged against him are big structural forces, from the record closures of pubs, to the arrival of trendy Continental beers, to a long-term decline in beer drinking.

While Mr Roscoe and and his employers, Diageo, have increased Guinness's share of the beer market and kept the brand ticking over financially with price rises (it went up 10p a pint in March), the amount of Guinness being knocked back nationally is falling and has been for years.

According to Mr Roscoe, during the past 12 months national sales are down 2 per cent, the equivalent of 7 million pints, although there are signs of a rise in some areas, including London. The market research company Mintel says that during the past three years Guinness has lost UK sales worth £28.5m. Although they fell "only 1 per cent" by value in the year to last June, this came despite heavy promotion of the 250th anniversary of its St James's Gate brewery in Dublin.

Memorable advertising has been one reason for Guinness's enduring popularity, and among its slogans have been "Guinness is Good for You" and (with a toucan) "Lovely Day for a Guinness". Even today, Guinness accounts for 54 per cent of all advertising for bitter and stout, according to Mintel. But in a new world of chilled cider and Belgian beers in distinctive glasses, fewer customers are prepared to wait 119 seconds for a Guinness to be poured (despite the "Good Things Come to Those who Wait" TV ads).

Earlier this year Diageo began trialling Guinness Black Lager in Northern Ireland, and, if successful, the company will launch the lager on mainland Britain.

Such new angles are necessary to counteract the headwinds buffetting beer sales, which have been falling since 1979, despite a recent revival in real ale. Pub closures are still high, though a little down on their record rate a year ago. Out of 52,500 pubs, 2 per cent, 1,013, closed in the last half of last year and the rise in shop sales can not make up for the fall in draught sales. In a report on ales and stouts, Mintel estimated that from 2007 to 2009, UK sales of Guinness fell 3 per cent to £915m. It was, though, a mixed picture: sales were down in the "on-trade" and up a little in the "off-trade". In pubs and other licensed premises, they fell £35m to £795m. Shop sales rose £6.5m to £120.3m – a net loss of £28.5m.

Mintel was sceptical about Guinness's ability to counteract the long-term decline in pubs. "It suffers from a similar problem to the ale sector in that it is overly dependent on pubs for its revenue... which has meant that its revenue has been declining rapidly in the face of pub closures," Mintel said. "Guinness has not had a successful innovation since its Extra Cold variant a decade ago. Guinness Red sank largely without trace, and it will be interesting to see whether its new Black Lager and Mid-Strength variants can take off."

"The major cause is the decline of the beer market," explained Mr Roscoe. "People are going to the pub less and there has been a move away from beer and into wine and spirits." The company is concentrating on improving the quality of draught Guinness in pubs, introducing the drink to new licensed premises and innovating. After years of trading on its heritage, Diageo thinks one answer might be to make Guinness cool.

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