Thursday 27 November 2014

Mandy Johnston: When this party is over, Guinness will need a lot of strength to recover

Published 27/09/2013 | 05:00

Bobby Womack, one of the headline acts for this year's Arthur's Day, poses ahead of the fifth year of the event in Dublin

THE hangover of Arthur's Day for Diageo is enduring. On paper, Arthur's Day should work. A "national holiday" for a nation well known for their fondness of the odd libation brought to you by the makers of Guinness. Simple. Somewhere in the complicated corporate structure that is Diageo, a group of global marketing gurus brainstormed about how they might boost sales and profits of Guinness at home and abroad. Where better to start than the home of Guinness itself?

Not since the 'Floozy in the Jacuzzi' have we witnessed such outrage and national debate about an initiative that started out with the intent to deliver a warm and fuzzy feeling but just left a huge headache and a bad taste in our mouths.

The result of this campaign has left Diageo branded as international villains who have attempted to cynically fabricate a national holiday for their own gain.

Initially, Arthur's Day marked the 250th anniversary of the founding of the famous brewing company. Not confined to Ireland, it is a global event to promote Guinness to newer and younger drinkers.

However, delivering this message in austerity Ireland was perhaps not the easiest task for any marketer, and certainly not as easy as apparently thought. Had Diageo confined their celebrations to a once-off event, who knows, a pint of plain might still be our only man.

Perhaps the initial tone jarred with many who found it difficult to relate to the message that "it's party time". But corporate HQ charged ahead.

Realising all was not going according to plan, the snappy girls and boys in the marketing department understood they needed something new and began to add more big, international bands as surprise entertainment. This, I presume, was designed to reward the drinker with a night out at a concert that they probably couldn't afford. Promised music did not have the desired soothing effect and commentators started examining the event more closely with cynical eyes.

This year's attempt by the marketing department was to include the message that talented Irish bands and struggling Irish pubs are the main people that Guinness is trying to reward. So the message cycle has shifted significantly.

Changing tides mean shifting sands and it is not something any public relations professional wants to deal with; however, it is the bread and butter of the industry. A very simple principle is that if you are explaining, you are losing.

Any drinks company trying to promote their product's appeal to that growing and infinitely complicated youth market is akin to diving into shark-infested waters. But one would have assumed that a global brand of this magnitude would have handled things in a more considered way.

During the week, a senior executive from Diageo was interviewed by Jonathan Healy on Newstalk, who cleverly invited him to attend an A&E Department on Arthur's Day to see what was happening at the coal-face of our health service. I am sure this is not a question that anyone ever envisaged in that Diageo boardroom. And there lies the problem.

What is apparent here is that, in some instances, large corporate structures fail to realise the very real sentiment in each and every country, county, town and village.

Global brands are successful because of their spending power, but when it comes to reading the warning signs they can be misguided in attempting to buy their way out of a crisis – in this case pouring good money after bad.

With a new debate looming on the drinks industry's sponsorship of sporting events, this episode must give cause for concern to both the drinks and sporting industry.

Guinness will survive like a steady ship undaunted by choppy domestic or international storms. But will Arthur's Day survive this hangover? Perhaps. But like the 'Floozy in the Jacuzzi', this episode will not be without consequence for Arthur.

Eamonn O'Doherty's monument, the Anna Livia Plurabelle, was once situated on O'Connell Street. She now sits in solitude, staring balefully across the Liffey in a pocket-sized park at the executives in St James Gate. Perhaps she should be a daily reminder that even the best-laid plans can easily be consigned to the side streets of history.

Mandy Johnston is a former Government Press Secretary.

Irish Independent

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