It’s always Black and White.

Consistent use of Black and White in a venue’s decision corridor triggers Guinness in the System 1 brain and increases the propensity of selecting Guinness when beer consumers reach the bar to order their first drink.

Consistent use of Black and White in a venue’s decision corridor triggers Guinness in the System 1 brain and increases the propensity of selecting Guinness when beer consumers reach the bar to order their first drink.

Guinness, by this I mean the stout not the bitter or lager, has always had a bit of a problem. It’s difficult to attract younger consumers to the product.

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Guinness is a ‘Marmite’ of a brand. Many reject it out of hand and, for others, learning to like the taste and consistency is an uphill struggle. In the early 2000s, a solution to this problem was the introduction of an extra cold font on the bar. When served cold, the bitter taste was reduced and the refreshment characteristics were heightened.     

New craft beers from the Guinness brewery are ready to be launched over the next several years .

New craft beers from the Guinness brewery are ready to be launched over the next several years.

But today it makes a lot of sense to extend the brand into easier-to-adopt products such as Hop House 13, which opens up the brand to today’s beer drinker and widens the profile of Guinness consumers.

I worked with Diageo on several occasions, researching the effectiveness of the Guinness brand language for consumers aged 18-30. Guinness had a huge back catalogue of on-trade promotional display material stored in a massive warehouse in Banbury, with no real idea of what worked and what didn’t, and no clear idea of how to use it effectively in their on-trade business. My team were asked to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The key was understanding how pub-goers made decisions. Had they made a decision about what to buy before entering a venue or did the environment influence their product decisions? Was it possible to use brand communication to influence them? If so, what worked for Guinness and what didn’t? I now had the unenviable task of spending several weeks in pubs observing and talking to customers, such is the hardship of a design researcher! 

Understanding behaviour

The propensity to drink Guinness, across all groups, was much greater than the level of actual sales of the brand at the point-of-purchase. Clearly something was going wrong.

The ‘Serve’

The ‘Serve’

My team’s research identified several typologies of consumer. The majority of consumers loyal to the brand had an intention to buy Guinness before they entered the venue and used recognition of the font to trigger a purchasing decision. We also found that, in unfamiliar venues, loyal Guinness consumers sought out visual quality signals to reassure them that the product was kept and served correctly. They expected Guinness to be kept at the correct temperature and for the bar staff to serve it properly. Guinness loyalists would not tolerate a venue that did not serve Guinness correctly.

Of the other typologies, most did not enter a venue with an intention to buy Guinness, 70% used the bar display to make a decision about what to buy.  Some included Guinness in a repertoire set of brands they would consider buying; others were new to the brand or would only choose Guinness on very special occasions. In these groups it took more than simple recognition of the brand to persuade them to buy.

Our research identified critical behavioural insights: effectively, in a pub there is a ‘decision corridor’ which extends from the exterior to the bar. Very few people, apart from brand loyalists, decide what to drink before they get to the bar. Influencing their first drink choice was key to repeat sales. If the first drink is good, 18-30 males tend not to switch. This is especially true of male groups who typically all adopt the same drink when buying rounds. Potentially the ‘decision corridor’ could be used to prime consumers and influence their decision at the bar. This depended on two crucial insights:

·      What brand assets do consumers use to recognise Guinness?

·      What messages or signals have meaning and relevance?

Recognition and relevance

Brand Language Research is about understanding the visual properties that drive a connection with the brand, enabling it to be easily recognised and effectively persuasive.

Black and White drives recognition. It is Guinness’ Primary Brand Asset.

Black and White drives recognition. It is Guinness’ Primary Brand Asset.

Guinness had many brand assets that drove recognition but the black pint glass with the white head was the brand’s Primary Brand Asset and was recognised by more than 9/10 target beer drinkers aged 18-30. The Guinness logo also drove recognition, as did the stencil Guinness typography. Oddly and surprisingly, the harp was comparatively weak and not universally recognised as belonging to Guinness. We now know that the harp was an authentication device. Consumers subconsciously use these visual assets to reassure themselves they are getting the ‘real thing’; although important to the connection process, they do not drive recognition.

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At the time, there was very little implicit or explicit meaning in Guinness imagery. Apart from the colour black, the visual assets were simply symbols by which to identify the brand. In addition, to new consumers, the colour black was seen as a negative and implicitly interpreted as ‘heavy’. You can begin to see that Guinness had some work to do in influencing new 18-30 consumers.

Understanding how to enhance recognition and relevance

The key to successful communication is brand recognition, clarity of meaning and its relevance to purchasing decision: in this case, buying a pint of Guinness instead of lager or bitter. This may seem obvious but in reality, how many brands actually take the trouble to verify how competitively effective their brand language is in achieving these objectives? 

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Guinness owns ‘black & white’. Even though others such as Murphy’s share a black and white scheme, whenever a black and white glass was shown to respondents the association was always with Guinness. Black and white is their most important asset – their Primary Brand Asset. It was the primary asset that pub goers used to recognise the availability of the brand. For loyalists, it was the trigger that subconsciously elicited a System 1 purchasing decision and made other typologies aware of its physical availability.


Often, motivated by a desire for consistency, branding devices are subject to strict guidelines that define how the asset should be used in media. To a certain extent I agree with this, as it is important to protect the integrity of branding. It’s only on very rare occasions when a branding is no longer effective that it should be changed, and then only sufficiently to make it relevant. But our research showed that creative use of black and white could benefit Guinness in an on-trade environment. Especially when it was sited in the decision corridor leading to the bar where a pub-goer would order their first drink. Utilising Guinness black and white in themes that interested pub-goers was an understandable game that stretched pub-goers’ relationship with, and interest in, the brand. It triggered their subconscious system 1 memory of the Guinness brand to prime them, so when they were asked at the bar “what can I get you?” Guinness was top of mind. This worked especially well if the Guinness fonts were in a high visibility location on the bar top. 

Consistent use of Black and White in the decision corridor triggers Guinness in the System 1 brain and increases the propensity for consumers to select Guinness as their ‘first drink’ when they reach the bar.

Consistent use of Black and White in the decision corridor triggers Guinness in the System 1 brain and increases the propensity for consumers to select Guinness as their ‘first drink’ when they reach the bar.

We were able to give Guinness guidelines on what communication to keep and what to get rid of. I guess they needed a much smaller warehouse after the project was concluded. But we provided other insights that I like to think contributed to the creative visual development of the brand.

Guinness identity updated by Design Bridge  http://www.designbridge.com/

Guinness identity updated by Design Bridge http://www.designbridge.com/

A few years on and Guinness is now well and truly into a new phase of marketing activity but still by and large trying to connect with the 18–30 market. The visual language of the Guinness brand is continuing to evolve for very good strategic reasons. Design Bridge have done an excellent job of evolving the Guinness logo and the harp device.

However, Guinness needs to remember that the harp is still an authentication asset and not the primary brand asset – that will always be black and white. It’s embedded in our System 1 brains.



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Starting as a designer, Rob became curious about why certain designs worked better than others in the real world. It was from here, in conjunction with academia, that Rob started to develop early versions of our research methodology in 2004. Now Genesis Brand Language Decoder™ is a means to unlocking brand language opportunities for brands to exploit for commercial gain. Rob has used insight from our research approaches to drive strategic design for many successful global brands. 

For more on how we can help you identify and develop your brands assets for competitive advantage mail rob9barker@gmail.com or ring  01233 811636.