"Guinness World Records" and the End of Branding Innocence

The loss of youthful innocence must certainly be one of the most powerful themes in modern literature. One need think no further than Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s iconic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, here, whose underlying imagery rests on the notion of protecting the innocence of youth. Innocence is viewed with sense of nostalgia and its loss with a sense of regret. But the theme of innocence is not limited to modern literature. Something similar can be seen to take place regarding trade marks. A good example is the fate of the Guinness mark. When is a putative world record little more than a paid-for marketing gimmick? Answer: when it is connected with Guinness World Records.

Lest you feel that this Kat is being a bit too harsh (perhaps he has downed one too many a pint of a certain beer), Kat readers are invited to consider the piece, “For a Fee, Guinness Will Help You Set a New World Record,” which appeared under the byline of Ben Paynter in the September 19, 2013 issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, here. The piece describes the transformation of the almanac, The Guinness Book of World Records, began in 1951 to enable pub patrons to resolve disputes about various bits of arcana, to a change of focus in the 1970s to cater to the youth market, to its current emphasis on providing a promotional platform for those prepared to pay a consulting fee in order to identify some activity for which a new “world record” can be established. In viewing these changes, one can witness how the Guinness mark in this context has moved from the innocent quirkiness of days gone by to being another form of “reality” entertainment in the service of advertising and promotion.

The article highlights what happened on 13 July of this year near Syracuse, N.Y. There, on the grounds of the Turning Stone Resort Casino, when 600 people, all wearing red and white rain ponchos, gathered to achieve a new “record” of an event that had never before taken place—“the world’s largest human playing card”. As described, “[a]n air horn blasted, and the participants, filled with free snacks and holding $20 gaming vouchers, popped their hoods and stood still for 5 minutes. The result: a 56-76 foot ace of diamonds made entirely with human pixels.” Voilà—a new “world record” had been set. Lying behind the curiosity was a marketing stunt plain and simple. Turning Stone paid $10,500 for a so-called Silver Package, which provided consultancy services to develop the notion of a human-playing card, the appearance of a “superserious adjudicator” to determine that the new record had been established according to pre-determined criteria, and a licensing arrangement for Turning Stone to make use of the Guinness mark. It was the responsibility of Turning Stone to attend to such arrangements as purchasing the ponchos and rounding up the requisite number of participants (Guinness set a minimum of 250, with 600 actually appearing for the event).

So how big has the business of selling promotional stunts under the Guinness World Records mark become? Consider the following data points: Since 2012, Guinness has worked with more than 160 corporate customers to create events such as that of Turning Stone. Consulting fees range from $7,5000 (such as the world’s tallest ice sculpture, being 49 feet, 8 inches) to more than $20,000 for a complex event , such as “'cracking' the most Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels at the same time.” The provision of these consulting services now brings in 20% of the company’s revenues in the U.S.; that is expected to rise to 50% by 2015. The company purports to be able to calculate the precise value of the media attention that follows from a staged event developed through the company’s consulting services to establish a new record—that amount is $330,000. Whether or not that figure is correct, the Guinness platform for staged new world records has attracted both modestly sized companies, such as a New England-based company, Cabot Creamery Cooperative (“[f]or what marketing dollars we have, we have to make it go a heck of a long way—we’re not Kraft”) to food giant Frito-Lay (“[c]ustomer engagement is a big thing for our brand”).

Far be it from this Kat to look askance at marketing and promotion, which is so central to modern business and which lies at the heart of why trade marks are registered and protected. Still, the nostalgic part of this Kat feels a sense of regret, the end of innocence perhaps, at the change in what Guinness World Records seems to have become, namely a platform for providing clever one-off freak shows for overt commercial purposes. This seems to be no accident. The business split off from the Guinness brewery in 2001 and it is now owned by a Canadian company, Jim Pattison Group, which is reported to also own Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Perhaps one can best understand the transformation of Guinness World Records in those terms, whereby it has succeeded in sanitizing the unabashed freakshow of Ripley’s by the aura still embodied in the Guinness brand. While this Kat guesses that this is the way of trade marks and business, a part of him still thinks that he should emulate Holden Caulfield and find a way to protect the Guinness World Records mark from the loss of its iconic innocence.
"Guinness World Records" and the End of Branding Innocence "Guinness World Records" and the End of Branding Innocence Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, November 01, 2013 Rating: 5


  1. It doesn't seem possible in the modern world to ringfence things to protect them from commercial pressures. We clearly need to find ways to do it to protect the quality of our institutions and art forms. What gives me hope is that the 'Shakespeare' brand has remained so powerful and undiluted, and it's survival and strength means we do appreciate the finer things in life.

  2. And this is different from Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners how?


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