In 1977 Guinness commissioned consultant Alan Hedges to look into why sales of the bottled version of the stout were dropping off. His research revealed changes in the beer, and changes in society.
Hedges is, it turns out, something of a legend in the world of market research having written an important book called Tested to Destruction, published in 1974.
We guess from the odd contextual clue that he got the Guinness gig because he had worked for S.H. Benson, an advertising firm that held the Guinness account in the 1960s.
He may well still be around – he was active in the industry in the past decade or two – so maybe he’ll pop up to tell us more if he ever stumbles across this post. (That’s one reason we like to put things like this out into the world.)
This particular item is yet another document from the collection of Guinness paperwork we’re currently sorting through on behalf of its owner. We’re not going to share the whole thing, just highlight some of the most interesting parts.
Having reached something of a post-war peak in 1963/64, from 1964 sales of bottled Guinness began to decrease. After a plateau in the early 1970s, in 1973/74 it then dropped away “in a jagged but continuous plunge”:
By the beginning of of 77/8 the level is about 63% of the 12-year average, and the rate of loss is about 4 or 5 index points in the previous year…
Hedges chose to focus on the mid-1970s drop in particular.
Before we go any further… What’s your guess for the possible cause?
Those dates immediately made us suspect that the resurgence of interest in real ale around the rise of CAMRA might have been the key factor, given Guinness’s previous status as the Chief Drink of Very Discerning Men.
Hedges first thought, though, was something closer to home.
The emergence of Draught Guinness
Could the new kegged stout be cannibalising sales from the bottled version? This certainly seems like a sensible supposition, and from the point of view of those interested in beer history it has the added benefit of prompting Mr Hedges to include a graph showing sales of Draught Guinness, or DG, from 1963 to 1977:
Frustratingly, it doesn’t have actual numbers but, still, interesting.
His conclusions are cautious:
It is possible to argue that DG stole sales from BG [bottled Guinness] during the latter sixties, and that it was this transference of loyalty that first set BG on the downward path. However, there is no particular confirmation of this view from the timing of the respective slides and spurts… From [1971/2] until the end of 74/5 the two lines move in parallel – suggesting a global Guinness problem… On the other hand it may also be argued that the dynamism created by DG in the first eight years of my charts generated enough excitement to help keep BG alive…
In short, maybe BG lost out to DG, but probably not.
The beer market overall
There are some lovely numbers in this section, presented in a very functional table, reproduced below with slight amendments to labels for clarity:
Now, tables are boring, but you know what’s even more boring? Graphs! We took those numbers and turned them into a couple of charts.
It’s obvious from all this that Guinness was in trouble, performing relatively worse than packaged beer more generally. After a lot of pondering and reflection on detail, Hedges zeroed in on a key development in the packaged beer market, namely the increasing popularity of non-returnable packaging (especially cans):
Guinness has been heavily dependent on returnable bottles… [And] that the returnable bottle market is declining faster and more consistently than the total packaged market… shows in some senses why BG sales have fallen so rapidly.
He goes on to argue that if it’s just a marketing problem – bung Guinness in cans, or more interestingly branded disposable bottles – then it’s a quick fix, but…
There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Guinness in some sense belongs culturally to the returnable bottle and not to the can.
This sounds like quite a 2018 conversation, and an issue that the UK’s old family brewers are grappling with today.
Lager, and ‘anti-dark movements’
Next, Mr Hedges looked at lager, and pondered whether Guinness was a victim of “the bandwagon growth of lagers”. After much reflection on lager sales, both draught and packaged, compared to those of Guinness, his conclusion was that, yes, lager was doing remarkably well, but even with lager taken out of the equation, Guinness was still in steeper decline than other beers on the market. But…
This discussion of lager brings out a further point. In recent years dark beers have tended to lose ground to light beers. Although there have been dark beers that have succeeded at least temporarily against the tide (like Newcastle Brown) [which] shows that this is not an immutable law. The unanimity of the movement, however, suggests that it is more than coincidence that the beers gaining ground are almost all light, while those that are losing are mainly dark.
At this, he gathered some numbers from the Brewers’ Society: what share of the market did dark beers have?
1972 | 29.9%
1973 | 27.3%
1974 | 26.1%
1975 | 23.8%
1976 | 21.7%
This is very close indeed to a straight-line share decline. There is no sign that general anti-dark movements might help to account for the sudden downturn in Guinness in 1974.
Too expensive for old working class men
A couple of sections here run together. To summarise (because it’s a bit dry, and we want to get to the next bit, which isn’t) market research carried out throughout the 1970s showed that a lot of older working class men quite suddenly stopped drinking bottled Guinness in 1973/74: “Although the changes are small the bases are large, and movements of this magnitude would be quite sufficient to bring about the sort of changes we are considering.”
Hedges wondered if they were put off by a change of label (more on that shortly), or perhaps by a series of economically driven price rises that occurred at around this time. Guinness didn’t rise in price much more than any other type of beer on the market, but…
[The] sectors of the population in which Extra Stout holds its franchise – older people with a high proportion of DEs, typically pensioners – are more sensitive to price changes than others.
That, he suggested, coupled with a general sense of crisis and austerity prompted by the three-day week, might be the most important factor.
The beer changed (got worse)
This is far and away the most interesting bit of the report, if we’re honest, not least because Guinness itself is so cautious about discussing changes, or acknowledging any drop in quality over the decades.
Alan Hedges seems to have had access to lots of concrete data on how the beer had changed, even if he grumbled that there was no record of ABV, or brewery-level quality control reports on file.
What he did have was notes on the original gravity (OG) of Guinness ES at various points in the process which led him to conclude there had been a substantial drop in strength between 1960 and 1976:
I have no way of knowing what sort of difference in strength is perceptible… [but] I would guess that the full 10% drop over the period could be important. Older BG drinkers (whose loyalty to BG has been under obvious pressure) could well feel that the drink was less strong than they remember it.
So there’s Item 1 in the evidence for Guinness not being the Beer It Used to Be.
Item 2 is that, from 1971 onward, the beer was brewed weaker in the summer, so that a drinker in August in the mid-1970s could end up with a pint that was 14% weaker than those they’d been drinking in 1960. You’d notice that, surely?
He also managed to dig up statistics on the Isohumulone levels of Guinness ES – that is, the hop bitterness. Though he concluded that there was no correlation with sales, the numbers are interesting: there were around 58 parts-per-million in 1960, compared to 47 ppm in 1976. Guinness ES also got roastier. Or at least the amount of “roast material” went up, from about 7.7% of the total grist in 1960 to around 8.8% in 1976.
On the technical front, there were problems, too, according to Hedges’ analysis of quality surveys carried out in the retail and wholesale arms of the business:
There are in all four occasions when the wholesale survey percentage with [unacceptable] taste-marks greater than 1 falls within a point either side of 10%. Each of these coincides with a local high point on the smoothed sales curve followed immediately by a sharp fall.
In other words, when quality testers noticed off flavours in the bottles, customers would too, and they’d stop buying the beer.
As well as off-flavours there were also carbonation issues at various points and (perhaps a vicious circle) bottles started sticking around on pub shelves for longer: “If stocks build up age increases. Then quality falls off again, and demand slackens further. And so on.” Guinness: drink fresh!
Now, here’s a great bit sure to wind a few people up:
The above comments are based on wholesale survey figures for [London] production. If Dublin production is brought into the picture the discrepancy between the surveys worsens, since the percentage of Dublin production over the acceptable taste mark on two occasions approaches 15%.
Yes, that’s right – Dublin-brewed Guinness dragged the overall quality down. Oof!
Was there, Hedges wondered, a correlation between advertising spending and sales? By now, his conclusions are beginning to sound a bit repetitive: maybe a bit, but not conclusively so. Guinness’s share of overall beer advertising did dip in the 1970s but sat at a remarkable 20% in 1965/6, and was still at around 16% in 1976.
What is interesting here apart from the numbers are some of the observations about Guinness’s place in the market…
[One] has to bear in mind the unusual load that Guinness advertising has to bear in maintaining demand pressure since Guinness is selling largely through outlets owned by its competitors. For this reason advertising may be unusually critical to Guinness’s performance.
Another observation he makes is that Draught Guinness and bottled Guinness, though they shared a trademark, were quite different beers targeting quite different markets, and advertising content reflected that:
In period 1967/8 the reparative campaign was abandoned in an attempt to broaden appeal, and Benson’s introduced the rather Coca-Colaish ‘World of Guinness’ campaign. This ran for about 18 months.… For the first six months of ‘World of Guinness’ nothing much happened to sales. Then they began to dive, and the plunge lasted until the end of the campaign, after which it tapered off.
(Reparative? See here.)
It seems this campaign worked for Draught, which was “young and outgoing”, but might (Hedges speculated) have turned off “the more traditionalist Extra Stout loyalist”.
A full list of Guinness’s various advertising strategies from 1970–76 is also supplied. For example, in 1969/70, the message was that Guinness tastes “pleasant, not bitter and medicinal”, put across on TV in an ads called ‘Irish Coffee’ and ‘Champagne’, and on a poster with the slogan ‘Give him a Guinness’. By 1972/3 the emphasis was on the “naturalness and character of drink”, targeting primarily younger drinkers. Which naturally leads us to…
No survey of beer in the seventies would be complete without mention of CAMRA.… CAMRA has undoubtedly been successful as a movement, in that it has become more than a national beer-drinker’s talking point. CAMRA claims credit for the introduction of 18 cask conditioned beers, and the withdrawal of advertising support from kegs tells its own story…
One of the difficulties we had in researching Brew Britannia was finding out what the big brewers made of CAMRA because the policy seemed to be, as far as possible, to ignore mentioning it. But we’re certain there was lots of chat going on behind the scenes, and this document strengthens that feeling.
Hedges summarises all the reasons people were drawn to the real ale movement: ‘small is beautiful’ hippy tendencies; nostalgia for the good old days; the anti-additive, anti-processing, health food drive; but most of all, their guts:
Although it became linked by CAMRA mainly with flavour and body, the main original source of displeasure was probably in the level of carbonation. Bitter has traditionally been flattish, thinnish liquid which can be drunk in prodigious quantity. People simply found that drinking a lot of keg beer blew them out and gave them stomach ache.
Hedges noted that CAMRA’s growth mapped well against declining sales of Guinness Extra Stout, including a sharp bump up/down in 1973/74, but couldn’t think of any particular reason why that should be. In fact, he thought, Guinness ought to have done quite well out of the general attack against “the competition” (Watney’s et al) but “Guinness failed to speak to the disenchanted bitter-men in the right terms”. In other words, Guinness’s advertising at the crucial moment was pursuing lager lads, not ale drinkers.
Finally, Hedges considered the weather, a factor often cited as crucial in the rise of lager in the UK. Guinness, he concluded, was without doubt a seasonal beer which was less popular in summer, but there was no particular correlation between hot summers and the sudden drops on the sales graph.
No firm conclusion
In the end, Hedges is unable to pinpoint a single factor responsible for the drop in sales of Guinness, but in trying he leaves us with a fascinating picture of the ups and downs of an important brand, and the many competing factors that can nudge a product in or out of the public’s affections.
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