Back to black... Guinness and its remarkable pulling power
Its customers include Prince Philip (but not the Queen) and its Dublin HQ has just been named Ireland's leading tourist attraction. By Kim Bielenberg
The starring role played by Guinness as the bestselling Irish tourist attraction is becoming almost as important as the part it plays as the iconic drink. It may be cringeworthy to watch visiting dignitaries pander to stereotype by posing with a pint, but just under a million-and-a-half people want to do just that every year as they visit the shrine to stout that is Dublin's St James's Gate brewery.
The numbers visiting the Guinness Storehouse grew by 18% last year and it now steadfastly retains its place as the Republic's most popular tourist attraction.
Even the Queen and Prince Philip seemed to be taken in by the Guinness mythology during their historic visit to the Republic in 2011.
As the Queen gazed at the beer, declining to take a sip, Prince Philip asked a question that is on the lips of tens of thousands of visitors: "Is it made from Liffey water?''
The guides in the Storehouse like to dispel that myth about the water. In fact, the water comes from springs in the Wicklow Mountains.
Another tall tale holds that Arthur Guinness invented his famous porter when he accidentally burnt the barley. As I discovered when I visited the Storehouse, he did not invent the drink at all.
Paul Carty, the successful managing director of the Storehouse, is the man given credit for turning it into one of Ireland's biggest tourist attractions. He returned to Dublin to work on the Storehouse project in 2000 after working as a hotelier in Saudi Arabia.
"I realised this wasn't going to be a visitors' centre, it was going to be a world-class brand centre," he says. "Similar to a hotel - but without the bedrooms."
He adds: "The idea was to create a home for Guinness that would welcome potentially up to one million people. We needed somewhere to showcase the archives and Guinness at that time wanted to reposition the drink.
"The image before was of the old Ireland, of log fires and men with peaked hats. Over the years, we needed to contemporise the brand and present it in a different manner."
Before he opened the Storehouse, Carty toured branded attractions in Europe and America, including World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta and Cadbury World in Birmingham.
Housed in a converted fermentation plant and revamped over the years, the seven-storey building is cleverly designed in the shape of a giant pint of Guinness.
Visitors start at the bottom, seeing the basic ingredients - an actual pit of barley, water, hops and yeast. They then pass through a gallery of adverts - including toucans, ostriches and men carrying steel girders with the slogan "Guinness for Strength'' - before ending up in the head of the pint, the Gravity Bar, 50 metres above the Dublin streetscape.
Some might wince when celebrities brandish a pint, but it has played a part in the rapid growth in popularity of the Storehouse. When the Queen called around in 2011 and President Obama pulled a pint of the stout in a pub in Moneygall, visits to the attraction surged by 10%.
Music's highest-earning couple at the time, Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris, sprinkled the tourism venue with more stardust last year when Swift reportedly held an after-concert party there.
Jack Murray, an authority on branding for MediaHQ.com, says Guinness has been extremely clever at aligning its brand with Irish national identity.
"An attraction like the Storehouse creates a strong emotional engagement," says Murray. "Say, if you are from Wisconsin and you go to the Storehouse and you get to see the slice of Irish culture, and they deliver that story to you, it has an emotional effect on you."
Guinness is not the only company to identify itself with the nation. Coca-Cola went far to establish its reputation as a patriotic brand epitomising the values of the United States during the Second World War by almost giving it away to soldiers.
Guinness has not always been keen to identify itself as the essence of Irishry, however. The firm moved its headquarters to London in 1932, where it has been based ever since (and renamed as Diageo during a corporate restructuring in the 1990s).
According to The Economist, as recently as the 1980s, the company considered disassociating itself from its heritage. Worried about the impact on sales of the IRA's campaign during the Troubles, Guinness came close in 1982 to relaunching the brand as an English beer brewed in west London.
It was only when the Troubles eased that Guinness switched its marketing focus back to Dublin, aiming its product at tourists in Ireland and the vast Irish diaspora.
The Storehouse now has a staggering 62% market share of all Dublin's leisure tourists. With 1.5 million people coming through the doors, that is a lot of emotional bonding with the booze.
A quarter come from the UK, another quarter from the US and just 9% from Ireland.
With such a large chunk coming from Britain, there is natural concern that the steady growth in numbers at the Storehouse might be affected by Brexit, which is already making visits to Ireland more expensive due to the collapse in the value of sterling.
A report by the Dublin City University economist Anthony Foley found that four out of five tourists cite the traditional pub as the biggest attraction when travelling to Ireland.
The study, entitled The Contribution of the Drinks Industry to Tourism, shows that 80% of international visitors to Ireland have said that their desire to experience an Irish pub brought them, while 83% reveal that "listening to Irish music in a pub" was their number one activity to do when holidaying in Ireland.
Carty argues that the Republic "absolutely" needs to capitalise on the stereotype of the traditional pub in order to satisfy visitors.
"They want to come and they want to experience what is uniquely Irish. We engage with people around conversation, fun, music and all of that. It's quite unique to Ireland and something we should dial up - not play down."