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Why the company behind Smirnoff and Guinness wants you to drink 'better, not more'

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Alcohol habits are shifting in some western countries as consumers adopt healthier lifestyles and are increasingly trialing new flavours versus the traditional staples, including low or no-alcohol options.

In the UK, annual consumption of pure alcohol per adult dropped to 11.4 litres in 2017, down from 12.6 litres in 1990, according to a study published in The Lancet. (Overall, worldwide alcohol consumption is on the rise, according to the research, which analysed World Health Organisation data and the Global Burden of Disease study.)

Promoting responsible drinking — which usually boils down to people drinking less — presents an interesting challenge for alcohol marketers, given that a CMO’s core responsibility is to drive growth for their company.

Speaking on the Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Syl Saller, the CMO of Diageo — which owns brands including Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, and Guinness — said its recent “buoyant” financial results were driven by a focus on value over volume.

Watch the full Syl Saller Global Change Agents interview here

“The way we think about it is if people choose to drink — and that really is a choice — then we want them to drink better, not more,” said Saller.

Diageo reported a 6% increase in net sales to £12.9bn in the year to 30 June, 2019. Operating profit rose 8% to £4.1bn. The company also increased its marketing spend in that period, by 9% to £2bn.

David Beckham and Guinness ‘Clear’

Saller said Diageo had been a leader in the “positive drinking” space since the early 2000s when it brought in its marketing code, which sets out the minimum standards that must apply to all its global marketing activity. The code includes rules on areas such as how its marketing must show respect for those who choose to abstain from alcohol, and how its marketing should only depict and encourage moderate and responsible drinking.

“The work that we’re doing in responsible drinking is some of our most creative,” Saller said.

One example of a recent Diageo responsible drinking push was Haig Club’s 2017 “Leave as You Arrived” ad, starring David Beckham and his friends leaving a bar as fresh as when they walked through the door.

Saller also pointed to Guinness’ recent Six Nations ad, which appeared to launch a new variant — “Guinness Clear” — which turns out to simply be a pint of tap water.

“What we’re trying to say there is a good way to moderate your drinking is to space drinks with a glass of water in-between each one, or choose not to drink — that’s fine,” Saller said.

“Our responsible drinking agenda is as important as our performance and that really is in the heart of our company.”

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the journeys of some of the world’s most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.

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