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Picture the scene: you're thirsty, fancy a pint, walk up to the bar and look at the range on offer. None of the brands rings a bell so how do you choose? Do you go for the one that sounds familiar, or the one with a curious name? Will it be their respective strengths that win the day?

It may be a combination of all these, but one drinks giant, Guinness UDV, decided to devise a way to give its brands a better chance against the competition ­ both at home and abroad.

Its solution was to devise a new process that would enable it to create the best proposition for a brand anywhere in the world. An understanding of four key elements was key: the marketing objectives; consumer needs and motivations; product attributes and perceptions; plus competitive advertising propositions, to achieve differentiation.

As a brand owner, Guinness was invariably pretty hot on the first three. Its Achilles heel was its knowledge of competitive propositions. It needed an instant, affordable way for its marketers worldwide to understand the brand positioning projected by all their competitors through advertising (as seen from a consumer perspective). This was ­ and still is ­ of critical importance when Guinness itself is working on new propositions in order to maximise competitive advantage for its brands.

It challenged Added Value to take semiotic thinking another step on from theory and academia into the world of practical marketing. It required it not just to demonstrate its power in decoding competitive advertising, but also to do this in a transparent and accessible way, so as to create a tool that Guinness marketing and planning teams could use to update continuously their knowledge base on competitive advertising

Tasty Toolkit

The upshot is a new concept, called the Toolkit, which has already delivered breakthrough results for Guinness. Its creation was painstaking. First, advertising from six core markets worldwide was analysed by semiologists with expert knowledge of these markets. Then, each analyst mapped out the codes (unwritten rules) of beer advertising characteristic of his/her market.

The advertising for all the major brands was analysed in terms of the codes deployed, then the country analyst made a hypothetical assessment of core consumer take-out from each brand's advertising before translating this into the language of advertising propositions.

Finally, the brands' advertising propositions were mapped along axes spontaneously suggested by the category codes from the analysis.

The merger of all the national data gave the Decoder team and Guinness a verbal and visual snapshot of the cultural meaning of beer globally. More critically, it produced a map of the international language of beer.

The process is helping Guinness keep track of the advertising of competitors and, thereby, differentiate its own advertising proposition not just in the UK but worldwide. Even UK Guinness marketers (armed with translations of the language) found that they could decode the advertising propositions of Japanese beer advertising with 80% accuracy. It's good news for semiotics. It points to the fact that it can sometimes offer a cost saving against more conventional forms of research.


Malcolm Evans
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, July 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001