I first left Ireland in 2015 and every time I land back in Dublin airport there has been one non-negotiable that’s become sacred to me: my welcome-back-home pint of Guinness. 

 These days it’s become more of a “negotiable” because the last few times I’ve come home I was either pregnant or breastfeeding (so no Guinness for me). However, now that my daughter is on formula milk and baby food I decided that I would order my precious Guinness over dinner with a few friends and Lord in heaven was I looking forward to it. 

The bar/restaurant we went to didn’t look all that hipster (I mean what bar established after 2010 isn’t at least a bit hipster?) But once we sat down I realised the extent of their hipsterness when they sauvely told me that they didn’t have any Guinness but they did have [insert trendy hipster stout here]. 

I’m sorry, what? 

Exaggerating the situation slightly I told her I’d come all the way from Paris to get a pint of Guinness (yes it DOES taste differently in mainland Europe – and NO it’s not the same). I ended up ordering said hipster-stout and silently cursed them. 

Even great substitutes don’t stand a chance against an unsubstitutional brand

It didn’t even matter that I actually did enjoy their homemade stout. I still thought that the bloody country was going to the dogs. 

Even though she had given me a really good tasting stout it did not compensate for the fact that it wasn’t Guinness. It didn’t matter that it was smooth and had a delicious coffee aftertaste. It didn’t matter that in another life I might have even preferred the taste compared to Guinness. It didn’t matter at all because… 

It 

Wasn’t 

Guinness

And that got me thinking. It got me thinking about why my heart was so set on that Guinness and why nothing (not even a tastier beer) could compensate for its absence. 

That’s when I came up with the word: unsubstitutional. 

Guinness’ branding is so powerful that they have become unsubsitutional for me, but why? What is it about this brand of beer that makes me basically ritualise my drinking of it? 

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

It isn’t about the product, it’s about the story behind the product

For those of you who may not know, Guinness has basically become synonymous with Irishness. They’ve done this through strategic storytelling and aligning themselves with symbols of Irish pride.

Guinness’ connection to Ireland runs deep. From the name (from the founder Arthur Guinness – whose surname is quintessentially Irish), the logo (the harp – popular symbol of Ireland and Irish culture) to how the company helped change the face of Dublin. Not only this, the company has partnered with the Six Nations because (guess what?!) the Irish love rugby and we’re pretty good at it (one of the only mainstream sports we’ll stay sober long enough to play well). 

So, it’s no surprise then that I started drinking Guinness around the age of 16 because that’s when I started to embrace my Irishness more so than my Britishness. I started drinking it not because I suddenly had a mad craving for a black stout, but as a simple act of rebellion. 

Ooh Kerry, but lots of teenagers drink as an act of rebellion!

Correct, but not many of them drink Guinness – believe me I got some funny looks every time I ordered it. 

It was an act of rebellion by tarnishing my old British identity in favour of the Irish one that had always been denied me. I spent my entire childhood and adolescence in an environment that demonized the Irish and Irishness and told me I was British before I was anything else. 

Those first pints of Guinness were a way of me saying “Fuck you, I’m Irish. I’m not British”

And where I come from, saying that was a pretty big deal. 

My attempt at photography

So, when I go home I crave that Guinness (you know in a non-alcohol-dependence kinda way). I need it because it tastes like a homecoming and reminds me of that decision to give up my Britishness in favour of my Irishness and that realisation was important to me. 

It’s not just a beer to me, it’s a way for me to express something profound and important about myself.

Now you can maybe imagine how I felt when that waiter told me they don’t do Guinness and if I’d like [insert hipster stout here] instead. 


How can we become unsubstitutional?


Imagine if Guinness just set out to be a stout beer? If they sought to have no bigger impact than being one choice of many beers in the local pub. If they failed to attach any meaning to their product and denied it its own place in Irish culture.

They certainly wouldn’t have been in business for nearly 300 years. 

I’ve been mulling over this idea of being unsubstitutional and how to emulate the success of Guinness and here’s what I’ve got so far. 

  • Matter to a certain set of people
    • Drinking Guinness has become a demonstration of national pride not only in the regular day-to-day sense but especially at times of high national togetherness (like during the six nations when we’re all cheering Ireland on). The importance of this is heightened because Northern Ireland plays with the Republic of Ireland – so the old tensions over borders are put to rest for a bit and we’re allowed to feel as one. 
    • This association hasn’t stopped Guinness from becoming an international superstar and even if it did only maintain its popularity within Ireland – better to rule your own kingdom than be the jester in someone else’s. 
  • Focus on one thing 
    • Athur Guinness started out brewing more than just Guinness stout. However, he made the decision to stop brewing ales and concreted on perfecting his black beer. This meant that he had focus and perfected the one thing that he offered. 
  • Screw finding a “gap in the market” 
    • The reason Guinness started focusing on his black beer was because London porter (a type of dark beer almost synonymous with stout) was becoming more and more popular with people in Dublin. Could you imagine if he decided not to perfect his own Guinness because “people were already making dark beers”? Instead of thinking “Well, I’ll just try and reinvent the wheel because someone else is making a successful stout,” he thought “How can I capitalize on this product’s popularity and make my version of it the best?” 
  • Your origin story isn’t your only story 
    • What people tell themselves when they interact with your business is a form of storytelling, like a 16 year old girl who drank her first Guinness as an act of rebellion. What story are your customers telling themselves when they interact with you and your business? 

What brands do you interact with that are unsubstitutional for you? Are you a dire-hard Starbucks fan? A “what-the-hell-even-is-a-PC?” Apple cheerleader? I bet if you think about it you’ll realise that you’ve got a few unsubstitutional brands that you love. Let me know in the comments below

PS No hipster brews were harmed in the writing of this blog

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