Stout defence of brand Guinness
As a €153 million new brewhouse opens at St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, Diageo chief executive Paul Walsh talks about the problem of binge drinking and the Government’s plan to ban alcohol sponsorship for sportDIAGEO CHIEF executive Paul Walsh offers a warm handshake and a cup of coffee at his office in the centre of London.
In the good old days, he might have cracked open some bottles of Guinness or offered me a nip of scotch. But in this era of responsible drinking, coffee is as good as it gets.
Diageo has spent about €20 million promoting responsible drinking in Ireland and Walsh bristles at the suggestion that it is merely paying lip service to the issue of alcohol abuse.
“I think that’s rubbish,” he says in a clear and measured tone that gives a hint of his Lancashire roots. “If you look at some of the advertising that we’ve done and some of the promotions that we’ve run and some of the attitudes that we have changed, it is impressive. I can assure you we are very sincere in our efforts.”
He then starts tapping the table in his compact office, asking: “Where are the parents in this debate? Because if I came home at 18 in that sort of state, I would haven’t been going out and doing it too often. There is a role here for the parents.”
Walsh is an only child. His parents were “loving” but “strict”, especially when it came to alcohol, he says. His own first drink was a half a pint of mild ale, when he was 18, naturally.
“At 16, I wasn’t particularly interested in beer. I was more interested in football and cricket.”
He doesn’t favour increasing the legal age limit for consuming alcohol. “I happen to think that 18 is right. Equally, I would never try and suggest to a market where 21 is the legal drinking age that they should change it. That’s up to them.
“But it does strike me as a little ironic that you can go to [war in] Afghanistan, you can get married, you can drive a car, you can even fly an aeroplane but you can’t have a half of Guinness. It’s a bit strange.”
He has a point.
There is also the issue of binge drinking, where adults get hammered each time they go drinking. It’s a cultural thing in Ireland but some would argue that events such as Arthur’s Day fuel this fire.
Arthur’s Day began in 2009 as a celebration of Arthur Guinness’s 250th birthday. It operates annually in September under the guise of a celebration of music in pubs and has been exported successfully to 54 other countries.
Paint the town black is Diageo’s marketing slogan, but isn’t it just a wheeze to encourage people to get tanked up on a Thursday night?
“Hopefully not tanked up, hopefully enjoying our product in appropriate moderation,” says Walsh fixing his gaze on me.
“It’s very interesting . . . it resonates extremely well in other markets. Arthur Guinness is quite an icon.”
He’s dismissive, too, of plans by the Government to ban alcohol sponsorship for sports events, possibly from 2020.
“The vast majority of people who attend these events, and who enjoy our brands, do so responsibly,” he says. “Unfortunately . . . because certain people abuse the event, abuse the product, we regulate everybody in that regard. I think that’s a very sad state of affairs.
“And sport will suffer and music will suffer because there won’t be sponsors stepping in behind us with the kind of money we’re prepared to put into them.”
Walsh argues that per capita consumption of alcohol is declining in both Ireland and Britain and that less than 3 per cent of people in Britain “drink to excess with regularity”.
That’s still about 1.8 million people, mind you.
“I think it’s progressive intrusion on personal liberties,” he adds. “We are in a world where, let’s face it, they [governments] want to regulate on everything. There is this mood that they know best. But the notion that you regulate for everybody is flawed logic.
“What’s next? Are you going to stop the Guinness Oyster festival? Are you going to stop the Storehouse? Are you going to stop Arthur’s Day? God, it’s going to become a boring world.”
Walsh yesterday donned a hard hat and builder’s boots for a sod-turning ceremony on a €153 million new brewhouse at its St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, increasing the brewery’s capacity from five to seven million hectolitres a year and allowing Diageo to consolidate all of its Irish brewing activities at St James’s Gate. Plants in Dundalk and Kilkenny will close.