When Irish Bars Are Smiling

Irish pubs have recently sprouted up all over the country. They do not signal a local yen for stout, but are the outcome of aggressive publicity and marketing

For a minute, you might forget where the Leon Bloom's pub is. If you try hard, you can even imagine that you were somewhere in Dublin. The Guinness is poured as it should be, slowly and in stages. The fish and chips are prepared just right. The furnishings are heavy dark wood, and the walls are lined with old-style posters of distilleries and breweries. A soccer match (on mute) is being shown on the TV screens that are spread about the pub, which is filled with the joyous din of groups of friends, most of them men. As in Ireland.

But the effort invested to make the pub look and feel like the real thing is immediately evident, in two conspicuous details: the servers' uniforms and the music. The waiters and waitresses wear identical uniforms emblazoned with the pub's logo in English, in an attempt to brand it as an authentic Irish pub. This is considered a quintessential sign of a tourist site or a chain based on a franchised formula; in other words, this is plainly not a local, family-owned, original pub. If one were to visit Ireland, this would be the sort of establishment you would not patronize.

But even more noticeable is the Irish music that blares out of the speakers without stop. Occasionally, you hear songs by Sinead O'Connor and U2, but mainly you hear the traditional Irish dirge of violins and flutes. And this is exceedingly unauthentic. Because the music that is generally played in your basic Dublin pub is pop. Britney Spears is a much more welcome guest there than any flute.

Leon Bloom's, the Irish pub that opened in April, is in the Ziv Towers shopping complex, which is in the Ramat Hahayal high-tech enclave in North Tel Aviv. Dublin, another Irish pub, which opened about a month ago, is in the center of the Herzliya Pituah high-tech and restaurant zone. Another pub by the same name, Dublin, opened last year in the Science Park high-tech zone on the outskirts of Rehovot. The Irish pub Temple Bar, which opened in late 2003 and is named for a bustling downtown neighborhood in the real Dublin, is situated in the Cinema City mall at the Glilot intersection. Murphy's opened four months ago in the Arena mall in Herzliya. Only Molly Bloom's, the first Irish pub, the pub that heralded the new trend in Israel four years ago, is located on a city street in the middle of Tel Aviv.

Drink before thirst

At first glance, we have before us a bizarre and curious cultural phenomenon. Suddenly, people are rushing to Irish pubs, which are sprouting up one after another in shopping malls and along the urban periphery. As if this opportunity has been wanting in these parts, as if there had been a perceptible thirst for the thick black brew, the famed Irish stout - and for the drinking culture that goes along with it.

Someone has come along and spotted the niche, and the demand is now being met. But it seems that sometimes drink comes before thirst, and then generates the thirst. In other words, it was the marketing that created the demand, and not the opposite. Because more than the burgeoning Irish pub market in Israel indicates a local craving of Irish culture, it embodies the competition between the local Coca Cola bottling company, which has imported Guinness beer to Israel since 1996 through its subsidiary Israel Beer Breweries, and Tempo, which since 1999 has imported Murphy's beer, which is itself owned by Heineken.

In a round of visits to the Irish pubs one night last week, all of the establishments were bustling. At Dublin in Herzliya Pituah, a few customers were drinking standing up, the tables were filled, and an Irish-Israeli band called Kahol (Blue), led by Uri Miles, was blasting get-up-and-dance Irish music. Nevertheless, the predominantly older, family-oriented crowd's interest seemed to peak when a member of band began a rhythmic darbouka beat (for a few minutes, Oriental sounds mingled with the Gallic inflections), but the bottom line is that everyone seemed to be enjoying the pure Irish melodies. In the marketing world, they call it an attraction.

The patrons are apparently not deterred by the forced decor: walls covered in tiles in the style of ancient castles, with inlaid "Gothic" stained-glass windows; and a large wooden arch suspended in the middle of the room solely for decoration. Atmosphere - the key word in the new marketing trend - prevails, and there is an impressive variety of beers on tap, and the grub is good. Everything is happy.

An Irish band is also playing at Temple Bar, the lively pub at Cinema City. A momentary bewilderment: things feel decidedly American as one enters the mall. Huge statues and posters of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Fred Astaire welcome the new arrivals to a glittery, shimmering sanctuary of cinematic celebration. You cross through the Hollywood commotion and suddenly, there in the middle of the mall, is something different: wooden furniture, dim lighting, white foam on black brew, partitioned booths, melancholy music - we've arrived in Ireland. Then you remember the big Irish immigration to America and things begin to settle down in your imagination - your imagination is enlisted in the tough task of marketing - and then everything is okay.

Murphy's has two major attributes that differentiate it from the other new Irish pubs in Israel: The pub doesn't sell Guinness and barely plays any Irish music. "We decided to emphasize British rock with occasional touches of Irish music," says Saguy Evron, an owner of the pub. "We found that you can take traditional Irish music for half an hour, but no more. Even in pubs in Ireland they don't play Irish music all day long, if at all."

Beer wars

Guinness isn't sold at Murphy's pub, simply because Murphy's is the "flagship pub" of Murphy's beer, that is, the leading stout beer that is distributed in Israel by Tempo, which is in competition with Guinness, the stout that is sold here by Coca Cola. Marketers speak a peculiar language, and they at times borrow concepts from the world of war: "Until 2003, Murphy's was a tactical product in Tempo's portfolio," says the public relations officer, "but from 2003 onwards, we began to develop it as a strategic product."

Or in layman's terms - until last year, Murphy's beer was imported to Israel merely as an ornament, in order to offer variety alongside the better selling beers, such as Heineken. A year ago, Tempo decided to invest efforts in the marketing of Murphy's beer, and expand its sales. The establishment of an eponymous pub in a shopping mall was the first big step.

"Pardon me, but an Irish pub without Guinness is not an Irish pub," declares with objectivity Elad Dor, the manager of the Guinness brand in Israel. "We brought in the culture of Irish pubs to Israel, and we are leading the charge," he explains. Incidentally, the beverage companies do not really open the pubs themselves; rather, they always find an investor to put up the money, and then assist with the marketing.

Molly Bloom's was opened by Irish entrepreneur Robert Segal in league with Coca Cola's Israel Beer Breweries. Murphy's was opened with Tempo's encouragement by the Evron family, which owns the Timber woodworking company. The beverage companies offer the pubs a variety of marketing and publicity services, professional guidance, training and discounts on beer products.

Guinness' dominant share of the Israeli market and its influence on Irish pub culture here is unsurprising. It was Guinness (and Coca Cola, its backer) that pushed for the establishment of Molly Bloom's, Leon Bloom's, Dublin Herzliya, Dublin Rehovot and the Temple Bar. Aggressive and creative marketing has always been a Guinness trademark. The veteran Irish brewery (begun in Dublin at the end of the 18th century) has from the very start invested great effort in exporting its brew to countries outside Ireland. The Irish market - heavy drinking but financially strapped - was never large enough to slake the company's thirst.

The company has always felt the need to employ sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques because Guinness - perhaps more than any other beer - is not the first choice that comes to the mind of the sought-after consumer: the young man who is just starting out as a drinker. You must somehow make this nascent drinker think that this bitter black beer is something he would like to drink. Any later in his development as a beer drinker, and it will be too late.

This year, the company is marking 75 years of advertising - many of which have been glorious, successful years. "Guinness considers advertising as a product that is of practically equal value to the brew itself," comments Mark Griffiths in the book, "Guinness is Guinness - The Colourful Story of a Black and White Brand," an interesting little book that was published this year and is sold at the Guinness brewery showroom in Dublin.

The most successful advertising slogan ever came out in 1929, and still reverberates through the imaginations of English-speaking clients: Guinness is Good for You. This simple slogan has since then joined a sophisticated marketing campaign that included convincing thousands of physicians throughout the British empire to publicize their opinions that a glass of Guinness a day is good for the health, and that it can also help with a variety of diseases. The slogan has not appeared on the company's posters since the 1960s (at which time regulations went into effect that prohibited the ascription of medicinal properties to alcoholic beverages in advertisements), but many drinkers of the beer still believe that it offers a medical remedy. A highly effective advertising campaign.

Sluggish market

The Irish pub is an export sector for Ireland. To date, 3,000 "authentic Irish pubs" have been designed and built in Ireland, and opened around the world.

All of this happiness is arriving on Israeli shores at a terrible time for beers. "The beer market has been stagnant for four or five years," says Elad Dor of Guinness, who emphasizes: "The market isn't moving. The only changes are taking place internally." In other words, the jubilation over Israel's Irish pubs does not presage any growth of the beer-drinking market, but rather an attempt to promote sales of a unique beer whose share of the sluggish market is practically minute. The stout beers - including Guinness, Murphy's, Kilkenny and various Belgian brews - now make up no more than 2 percent of the entire beer market. Over 90 percent of beer drinkers in Israel drink only lager beers (Tuborg, Heineken, Carlsberg, Goldstar and the like) and are not particularly fond of the heavy stout beer. The Irish pubs have succeeded in increasing sales of Guinness and Murphy's by tens of percentage points, although the entire market is inert.

So how does one manage to bring Israelis to Irish pubs and sell them a beer they don't particularly like? Perhaps it's all truly a matter of atmosphere. Israel is full of pick-up bars - sexy, urban, alienated. "Perhaps what there isn't enough of here," suggests Saguy Evron, "is an anti-pick-up pub. Instead of the sexiness and the pretentiousness of the pick-up, there's a feeling of camaraderie and security here. You can come to an Irish pub alone or with friends or with the family, and it doesn't matter how you look, how old you are or what you are wearing. It's a world without poses. And that is precisely tailored to the Israeli audience."