Guinness Bets on Black in New Campaign for Lager

Diageo Seeks to Disrupt Notion That Dark Beers Can't Be Refreshing

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More than a year after its debut, Guinness Black Lager still has some explaining to do: How can a brand known for a creamy, dark-as-night Irish stout compete in a lager category traditionally associated with easy-drinking light beers? The answer comes in an aggressive campaign that rolls out Monday that seeks to position the brew as both dark and refreshing.

Historically, that concept might have been tough to swallow in America, where the lager category has been dominated by light and crisp brews such as Miller Lite and Bud Light. But in an era where exotic craft beers are the rage, Guinness sees an opening.

"We've got a lager consumer who is starting to look around for beers that are more interesting," said Guinness Brand Director Doug Campbell. But the challenge, he said, is that there an "unwritten rule" in beer in which lighter beers tend to be easier drinking, while darker beers tend to more challenging to drink. So with Black Lager, "we are very deliberately trying to disrupt that unwritten rule."

The beer, which launched nationally in the U.S. in September 2011, began challenging that notion last year with a product-focused ad declaring Black Lager as "both refreshing and flavorful."

The campaign, by brand agency BBDO, takes it a step further with subtle digs at the competition. One TV spot, which stars "Boardwalk Empire" actor Jack Huston, belittles "regular beer" as having a "friendly, bubbly color." Black Lager, by contrast, has "more character, more style, more taste." Or as Mr. Huston says in the spot: "There is just something about black." Another sad will draw comparisons to other black liquids -- such as iced coffee or colas -- that are widely accepted as refreshing.

While Guinness has experimented with lagers before, Black Lager represents its biggest bet on the style. Brand-owner Diageo spent $10.4 million in measured media supporting Black Lager in the 18 months ending in July, which accounted for roughly 70% of all Guinness spending during that time, according to Kantar Media. Black Lager's media budget is expected to increase with the new campaign, which will include three TV ads airing on broadcast and cable TV.

The goal is to get Guinness into new drinking occasions. For instance, while Guinness stout relies heavily on bar sales -- where it is usually served on draft -- Diageo sees Black Lager as a way to grow grocery sales. For now it isn't even sold on draft, with the only availability in bottles. Also, lagers remain the beer of choice for so-called sessionable occasions, such as drinking outside during the day or tipping a few at a ballgame. The fact is that despite the rising popularity of crafty ales, lagers still account for about eight in every 10 beers sold in the U.S., according to Guinness.

Of course, the competition is stiff, with big brewers Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors pouring massive amounts of marketing money behind their lagers. So far Black Lager appears to be making some waves, despite being outspent. In the 52 weeks ending Sept. 9, the brand had $12.9 million in store sales, putting it roughly on par with more established brews such as Bass Ale and St. Pauli Girl, according to SymphonyIRI.

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