Why Your Brand Should Take a Stand: Lessons from Alcohol Giant Diageo

Hummingbird CreativeBranding & Creative, Business Strategy, Change, Challenge and Brand Resilience, Culture

Each year brings new challenges for business brands. Hummingbird is using this space to focus on how big brands have navigated some challenging times, how some have bounced back or gotten ahead with smart branding.

We investigate the four areas of branding that Hummingbird concentrates on with its own clients—strategy, identity, awareness and loyalty. The companies in our series stand out for various aspects of their branding, whether it’s better positioning, a well-defined corporate identity, strong brand awareness, leadership and reputation management… The list goes on, because the possibilities for smart branding are endless. We hope these stories inspire you.

Johnnie Walker and Crown Royal. Smirnoff and Captain Morgan. And don’t forget Guinness. Each of these good-time brands conjures a distinct image and (of course) taste. But imbibers may not realize that they’re all owned by a single corporation—Diageo plc.

Diageo has been around less than 25 years, yet it owns 200+ brands, employs 27,775 people and operates in 180 countries. We wondered how a giant corporation unifies all this under one big branding umbrella. For that matter, how does any company—large or small—pull itself together to create a strong brand out of many moving parts, places and people? 

One way involves brand values. Once a company defines its core values, it’s easier to unify behind social issues and commitments. Which in turn makes it easier for others to decide if they want to get behind the company. Taking a stand helps employees, stakeholders and customers make up their minds about a company. And they will, whether it declares itself or not. So it’s easier for everyone—and maybe more profitable—when companies stand the ground of their choosing.

Growth and Sustainability

A little bit of history: Diageo was formed in 1997 with the merger of two brands, Grand Metropolitan and Guinness. In 2000 Diageo sold its food brands to focus on “premium drinks,” spirits and beers. Diageo has gradually added dozens of alcohol brands with impressive pedigrees and histories. It produces those brands at 150+ sites around the world.

Just last year Diageo made a big media splash with its new ten-year sustainability plan, focused on all three areas of corporate sustainability: economic, environmental and social. Economic sustainability (aka consistent profitability) has been part of every business since the dawn of time. Environmental sustainability is now a pressing global issue. Among other initiatives, Diageo plans to reduce its water use by 40% in water-stressed areas and 30% company-wide, to shift to 100% renewable energy and to achieve zero waste. You’ll even be buying Johnnie Walker whiskey in paper-based bottles this year.

Social sustainability is the piece often missing from many companies’ plans, maybe because being a good neighbor, community member and employer seems self-evident. But society is complicated, and social change on the scale Diageo proposes is more likely to succeed with conscious effort.

Building a Brand Culture

Diageo consistently makes “best of” workplace lists and wins good ratings from employees. On Glass Door, the company receives 4.1 out of 5 stars. On Indeed, employees give Diageo an average rating of 3.67. And 91% of employees declare they were proud to work for Diageo, possibly because it makes a point of empowering them to design creative solutions for products and operations—Diageo North America was #20 on Fast Company’s 100 Best Workplaces for Innovators in 2020.

As part of its sustainability plan, Diageo champions inclusion and diversity in its workforce. The company aims to increase representation of women and employees from ethnically diverse backgrounds in leadership roles to 50% and 45%, respectively. For International Women’s Day this year, female employees took to video to share stories of why they choose “to challenge unconscious bias, gender and ethnic representation.”

Inside-Out Branding

Instead of telling customers what your brand is, inside-out branding shows them your brand through the actions and decisions of your company and employees. To prepare your employees for inside-out branding, you must communicate your brand to them. This happens through the brand culture you build, your internal messaging, your brand story… and your values.

Diageo has built a dynamic, inclusive brand culture that motivates its workforce to become brand ambassadors and contributors to society. This started centuries ago in member brands like Guinness, “a community-minded company championing human rights causes and saving Irish architectural landmarks.” In 2008, Diageo decided to “tackle harm” from excessive drinking—a spectacular example of sailing into the wind with values on board.

Dedication to Values

Diageo’s DRINKiQ initiative is grounded in the company’s dedication to social change. DRINKiQ aims to “champion health literacy and tackle harm… in every market where we live, work, source and sell.” How? By helping consumers make informed choices about drinking.

Diageo has come under fire for being disingenuous, for using DRINKiQ as a smokescreen. But inside-out, Diageo has remained committed. Specific goals in its sustainability plan include educating 10 million people on the dangers of underage drinking,  reaching 5 million to promote changes in attitudes to drunk driving and communicating responsible drinking messages to 1 billion.

“64% [of consumers] believe companies should provide ongoing support for issues that align with the types of products or services they offer.”

Brands & Stands, The Shelton Group

Diageo remains committed even when—or especially when—challenged. A 2015 responsible-drinking campaign funded by Diageo was slammed for victim-blaming women who had overindulged in drink. Diageo came back with a strong response that clarified the ad and the company’s stance (You’re a role model; be a responsible drinker). The news coverage served as an opportunity to reinforce Diageo’s “positive drinking” message.

These are issues that Diageo doesn’t have to face. Ever since humans discovered how to ferment food nine thousand years ago, we’ve been open for happy hour. So, Diageo could easily ignore the downsides of drinking. But the company uses PR—even negative press—as an opportunity to respond with consistent messaging and to strengthen its brand by highlighting its social efforts (like pioneering nutritional labeling for alcohol).

The Bottom Line

Defining your values benefits your company on several levels. It gives you an authentic foundation… to help you tell a good brand story… to build a strong brand culture… to practice inside-out branding… to reinforce your messaging around your beliefs.

Here’s the kicker: having values also helps your bottom line. According to research from the Shelton Group:

  • 86% of consumers felt companies should take a stand on social issues.
  • 64% of those consumers would be likely to buy from companies that stand behind their issues.
  • After discovering a company’s social causes, 34% of consumers felt better about the brand (so they’d probably feel better doing business with it).

It’s important to figure out what you believe in, what you will act on and what you will commit to as a company. Values matter. Give us a shout if we can help uncover yours; we’d love to help you strengthen your brand!

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At Hummingbird Creative Group, we build business value through better branding. Contact us to find out how we can build your business’s value:

919 854 9100   |   info@hummingbird-creative.com