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History of the Guinness toucan

Meet the savvy salesbird that helped Guinness Draft win St. Patrick’s Day. Grab a brew and crack open the history of beer's most famous bird.

March 11, 2022

What’s a Toucan doing in Ireland?

You won’t find many toucans in Ireland; they don’t hang out north of the tropics. One notable exception is, of course, the charismatic Guinness toucan. While most birds focus on nest building and elaborate mating dances, this vintage bird was once charged with brand recognition for the most famous stout in the world: Guinness draught. How did this neotropical beauty get into the Irish stout business? The answer lies in marketing.

Who came up with the Guinness toucan?

In 1935, Guinness sought to breathe new life into their marketing efforts and they were wary of focusing solely on their delicious stout beer, something they’d already done for decades. Ad firm S.H. Benson offered a new angle, and they tapped artist John Gilroy to lead the way. The toucan advertisement wouldn't be their only hit - the Benson agency along with Dorthy Sayers  would also come up with the "Guinness is good for you" tagline.

Where did the idea for the Guinness toucan come from?

Gilroy found his inspiration in a very 1930s way: he went to the circus. There, he drew upon the antics of sea lions, bears, kangaroos, ostriches and pelicans balancing objects on their noses to create engaging art. The star of every poster thereafter became the toucan, featuring its preposterous beak and irresistible grin. We also think its torso kind of looks like a pint glass of Guinness. We might be wrong.

The copywriter for Gilroy’s Guinness ads was a celebrated mystery author

Gilroy’s poster art needed some words to go along with it. Luckily, the copywriter for this project was Dorothy Sayers, a famous mystery novelist whose main character was Lord Peter Wimsey, a gentleman detective. It turns out copywriting was her side gig. Her poetic copy meshed seamlessly with Gilroy’s art, creating a string of goofy but timeless Guinness advertisement successes that could make even Depression-era folks smile. The campaign helped a trusty dry Irish stout like Guinness draught thrive in a world increasingly dominated by fizzy yellow lagers, thereby helping to preserve beer variety through some very lean years. In 1954, Guinness officially entered the United States market with Open Gate Brewery, the first Guinness brewery across the Atlantic.

How much Guinness is sold on St. Patrick’s Day?

Guinness certainly won St. Patrick Day: the company typically sells well over 10 million pint glasses of Guinness draught worldwide on March 17th (hopefully the Toucan is grabbing some residuals). The fame of this caliber puts Guinness right up there with St. Patrick as an Irish cultural icon. It’s funny to think that some of that success arrived on the wings of a little tropical bird — Arthur Guinness himself might never have foreseen that.

Would a cartoonish toucan selling beer still fly in the modern advertising world?

Hard to say. Indeed, Guinness retired the mascot decades ago, and the bird apparently moved on to hawking breakfast cereals (work is work), but the ads remain a testament to what you can do if you re-engage your audience — and you’ve got a world-class beer brand backing it up. Today, you will still catch glimpses of toucan advertisements behind the bar of Irish pubs around the world featuring vintage poster art, bottle openers, or even custom taps. 

Now that you have some history under your belt, you’ve earned yourself a beverage. Crack open a pint of Guinness beer with Drizly your home bar and give a classic mascot its wings. Just remember that toucan is all about responsible drinking.
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