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H is for... Heineken
Using media properties to shape the way a brand is remembered, recalled and acted upon
Nowadays the green and red bottle, the iconography and the visual identity of Heineken makes for one of the most recognizable set of trademarks in the world.
Although in the UK at least, as little as twenty years ago they weren’t necessarily recognized for the right reasons.
Despite being a pioneer as the first cool, distilled, refreshing lager made available “on-tap” in pubs and bars across the UK in the 1960s, the lager sold was 3.4% ABV even though everywhere else in the world they sold their 5% export strength.
This was because tastes and conventions at the time in the U.K. saw most people drinking warmish ales from pumps and casks in the pubs and working clubs up and down the country… which were generally a lower alcohol strength below 4% ABV.
Heineken tailored their offering to compliment this and offer a refreshing alternative.
Refreshing the parts other beers can’t reach
This differentiation of cool, refreshing lager pitted against the warm, stuffy ales of yesteryear led to some truly memorable advertising coming out of Heineken’s ad agency of the time CDP.
Starting with illustrations before evolving into the refreshment of cult icons of the day like the most famous rogue in U.S. drama history J.R. Ewing through to characters from “Hi-de-Hi” the most popular sitcom in the U.K. at the time.
Alas. The market then moved away from them
Fast-forward to 2003 …tastes had evolved and a raft of stronger lagers came over from the continent in the 90s either literally via barrels, or figuratively via brands like Kronenbourg & Stella Artois that were crafted in very specific ways for the UK market using exotic, continental cues in their brand building that de-positioned Heineken from a genuine pioneer to a figure of fun.
“Cooking Lager” “Trainer Beer” “Rats Piss” etc etc
With this Heineken’s sales were dropping.
Sentiment was falling.
Something had to change.
They took the radical decision to not just launch a new variant to meet evolving needs, but to stop brewing and selling the U.K. version of its lager altogether.
Replacing it with what they sold everywhere else in the world.
But how do you sell a premium beer, at a premium price point, to people with a less than premium image of your brand in their mind?
Well you have to re-position it.
Heineken’s transformation is a useful lesson to marketers and especially media practitioners in the value of media planning and media properties.
Hence for this chapter H… is for Heineken
A case study where I’ll demonstrate how the choices they made in media helped them reset associations in people’s minds over here and spread them far beyond their relative media investment across the rest of the world.
But first, the strategic imperative.
Heineken, like many other FMCG brands are part of a squeezed middle
De-positioned by craft brands.
Under-cut on price by mainstream brands and increasingly decent own labels.
Pretty much most multinational FMCG brands fall within the above in some way, shape or form.
But Heineken aren’t playing to the niches or wishing to get dragged into a price-war.
They need to sell lots of beer, to lots of people, at higher prices relative to their competition in “Big Beer” to create more shareholder value for those investing in Heineken rather than investing in AB Inbev or Diageo or the alternatives instead.
Remembering the point of advertising so neatly summarised by Les Binet.
Heineken need to be aspirational enough to warrant a premium, but accessible enough to be bought at scale, regularly.
A desirable trade-up for people making their upwards through society and want to reward themselves.
An acceptable trade-down for people that don’t want to pay the super-premium price of craft beer when hosting a BBQ or taking beers to one, without looking like a cheapskate.
So how did Heineken achieve this?
Distinctive assets. Widely distributed. In aspirational settings. Regularly refreshed.
If the wisdom of marketing science teaches us that if a brand ensures its distinctive assets are both familiar enough and associated more strongly to the occasions where that category is bought/consumed than the alternatives, growth will follow.
Heineken’s approach absolutely nailed this but is somewhat contrary to conventional marcomms centric success stories.
Whereas many brands achieve familiarity through broad reaching advertising, packed with an emotive punch, framed within an aspirational setting, that is bookended with the logo and other visual elements of the brand to drive recognition and recall…
…Heineken cut out the storytelling part and went straight to wrapping their red star, their green bottle and their tagline of the time around the actual things the people they wish to recruit most eagerly anticipated, enjoyed and opened a bottle in front of.
Heineken built a prestigious presence, all year round, through sponsorships and partnerships
When building any media plan there are certain spots and spaces that that carry a significant premium for each person you reach relative to other choices, a few examples below.
It’s the job of a media planner to balance and blend what comes at a premium to advertise in and is likely to be effective over a longer period of time vs. what may be more efficient to shift key measures today.
Whilst an econometric model might not quantify the payback of investing in a spot in the champions league final vs. reaching broadly the same “audience of champions league followers” via ads on Instagram, brand-builders are consistently happy enough to pay the premium for the upgrade.
1. There aren’t that many opportunities for brands to reach broad swathes of a captive target audience looking in the same direction
In the U.S. The Superbowl generates c. 112M viewers once per year in the U.S.
It has 30 of the 32 most watched television events in the history of U.S. television, with the next highest rating non-sports show that didn’t air in the 70s nudging only one tenth of that total.
Outside the U.S. The UEFA Champions League regularly attracts audiences of hundreds of millions of viewers each gameweek across the world (of which there are 13 gameweeks excluding qualifiers) with the final capturing an estimated 700M viewers worldwide.
Brands are built in public and stages such as these are few and far between.
That’s why they justify a premium.
That’s why the streaming platforms are fighting for the broadcasting rights for them.
That’s why they’re brilliant platforms for big, global brands.
2. Brands that appear in and alongside premium and prestigious events and entertainment benefit from the carry-over associations onto their brand
Brands like people are judged by the company they keep.
Which is why collaborations are such a potent modern brand-building tool.
In the same way some people think that New Balance are more desirable after a collaboration with KITH, people also associate the advertiser with the program, the property, the event and even the other advertisers or sponsors featured too.
A simple way to short-cut and refresh aspirational associations is to buy your way into the party.
Be that by appearing alongside in the form of ads, or in the programming itself with integrations.
3. For beer brands they don’t just reach a captive audience in spaces like these, they’re present within the largest “category entry points” accessible via advertising
Building aspirational associations and nudging purchase and usage at the same time.
The perfect combination.
Whilst spot advertising in these properties are fought over fiercely, Heineken didn’t just buy one-off spots to kick-off bursts of advertising activity in these spaces like these, they used their scale to sponsor and/or integrate into a whole bunch of them across the most prestigious sports and entertainment properties around.
Locking themselves in and locking competitors out of the in-game opportunity.
Giving themselves the chance to distribute their red, green and white amongst hundreds of millions of viewers, across dozens of countries, for most weeks and weekends of the year, within the most eagerly anticipated and aspirational media properties.
Truly flexing their global scale, but doing so in locally resonant ways
Both from a reach perspective.
These deals with rights holders ***should*** offer way more media value on a $ by $ comparison than can be gleaned via spot advertising secured with each local broadcaster.
As well as from a cultural perspective.
Heineken use their global properties to build local resonance with acts and activations that demonstrate an attitudinal alignment between the brand and the audiences’ worlds.
Which has given me an excuse to re-watch one of my favourite stunts of all time Heineken put on in Italy to build deeper associations with A.C. Milan fans annd football fans at the time.
This conscious choice to sponsor the biggest and the best has created more cultural and commercial clout than they otherwise might, if Heineken decided to use their global sponsorship investment but fragment it through market-by-market advertising campaigns that require different ads to be made and different agencies to get paid.
Heineken also built their brand from the bar out
On the flip-side of mega sponsorship deals across continents, Heineken recognised the value of the in-bar experience to not just sell bottles, but fill their bottles with even more aspirational associations at the same time.
Because everything a brand says and does, as well as the places, spaces and people who are buying (or in this case drinking) you shapes the way that other people think about your brand.
To compliment the pinnacle of sporting entertainment they sponsor, Heineken actively seek to be served in the best bars, in the best parts of town, that are visited on the best nights out – that yes offer a sales opportunity but also create even more aspirational associations at the same time.
Associations that can be experienced first-hand, but also scaled ATL by using media $s to spotlight the best bars and the best venues… that just so happen to choose to serve cold, refreshing Heinekens.
This was the premise of the hugely successful “Open Your City” initiative that rolled out across all parts of the globe, across multiple years, being one of a relatively short list of brand platforms I can remember that genuinely scaled and adapted and had impact across borders.
In the U.K. we turned the biggest newspaper for Londoners into a travel-guide for the hottest bars, venues and nights out – as well as ramping up other experiences such as transforming Battersea Power Station into an open-air cinema and offering access to tickets for their sponsored properties.
In Bangkok they integrated with mapping software to create incentives and rewards to visit different bars across the city.
An approach that not only improves quality perceptions with drinkers, but can also improve the quality of relationships with key venues that can be incentivised to increase Heineken’s prominence in-bar in return for featuring in activations like these moving forwards.
Solid foundations set the stage for bigger, more memorable plays ATL
This combination of being present in the most eagerly anticipated and aspirational occasions through sponsorships and partnerships, as well as being on-tap or in the fridges of the best bars through on-trade negotiations, created an ongoing presence for Heineken throughout people’s lives.
One that has resulted in them being distinctive for the right reasons, not just in its home region but across the world - below data showing U.S. performance vs. the rest of the beer category.
A foundation that doesn’t rely solely on spot advertising, gave them and their agencies the license to focus on taking fewer, bigger, better stories into broader reaching comms when necessary as detailed by the graphic below.
That have manifest in many ways that I’ve summarised into a neat trio…
1. Advertising that extends the reach of key properties – e.g. James Bond
To extend their most potent sponsorship properties amongst broader audiences, such as in the run up to the release of a Bond movie where as part of their partnership commitment they will need to co-promote the event with bespoke comms.
Benefitting the property owner with increased exposure.
Benefitting Heineken by reinforcing those aspirational associations.
2. Advertising & acts that extend the impact of their CSR initiatives
To extend their CSR initiatives in ways that combine purpose and product to show they are a force for good.
Be that creating shutter ads to save bars during shutdowns, creating a rally cry for people to get vaccinated to save socialising, or buying back wasted beer from venue owners in the pandemic and transforming it into biogas, electricity, animal feed and fertiliser to not just serve beer, but serve the planet too.
All of which picking up gongs at Cannes this summer along the way.
3. Advertising that launches NPD that caters to evolving tastes e.g. Heineken ZERO & Silver
Lastly, Heineken have gone back to the future as in order to attract the next-generation of Heineken drinkers, launching new variants with significant investment behind them such as Heineken Silver with a lower 4% ABV (funny how circular things are) & Heineken ZERO alcohol.
Some key takeaways
Having worked with Heineken at the end of my time with my last agency they were not only great brand-builders, but they valued media planning and media properties as tools to help shape the way their brands are remembered, recalled and acted upon.
This was reflected in an approach called “connections moments planning” that we trialled together, placing media thinking right at the start of the campaign planning process across their whole stable of brands, bringing x-disciplinary agency teams together around sizeable and influential connections moments we could create, appear in or alongside.
This is reasonably commonplace today but was fairly radical ten years ago.
Whilst Heineken have created some truly memorable ads, I’m convinced they’re remembered more for what they have sponsored and partnered moreso than for what they have said and done in their advertising.
Creating another method that marcomms and media practitioners can potentially choose to build brands at scale, across continents, without necessarily having to deliver that through the spots and dots we’re most comfortable with creating and counting.
My first professional interaction with Heineken is one that still makes me shudder.
In a real-world representation of Monopoly I won second prize in a beauty contest in Ocean Outdoor’s Annual Digital OOH contest, a competition across adland in the UK to encourage non-traditional uses of Digital OOH to demonstrate the potential of Digital OOH.
Digital OOH was very new at the time as was (paid) social media. Showing my age here.
I thought of something with Heineken in-mind that would combine these new media spaces to extend Heineken’s ongoing sponsorship of The UEFA Champions League.
Inspired by this team photo of every one of the 482 (male) players to represent Arsenal Football Club at Highbury that was put up outside The Emirates Stadium… and partly by a prankster that photobombed a Man United team photo prior to a champions league match, I pitched a social media idea that would create team photos with a difference…
Fans could submit their photos on social media to take their place in the official team line up for that match – courtesy of Heineken – with a select few even taking their place on the actual teams bench (or at least near it) a la Karl Power.
As everyone knows fans are the 12th team-mate on the pitch.
In return for people’s submissions, we’d send them back a unique bottle of Heineken with their name and number on the back, just the colours rather than the official team strips to bypass any copywrite infringements… Essentially concepting “Share a Coke” before that became an actual thing, admittedly nowhere near as well thought through as it was for a competition afterall!
We’d then use Ocean Outdoor’s massive digital screens to show the team photo as it grew in size, as well as broadcast individual panini style stickers of each person that joined in the fun that would be staged on Ocean’s massive screens in prominent locations – relaying those images back to everyone that got involved for further sharing across Social Media.
It didn’t win first prize, some sort of PaveGen execution where people charged up a Toyota Prius won the top gong, but I won a medal and some free media space which meant we could execute the idea with Heineken – happy days or so I thought.
So I took the idea as someone that didn’t even work on the account at the time, with our account lead on the business, into our next interaction with Heineken’s UK Marketing Director at the time, walked through the different elements, and he stopped me half way through.
“Matt…Heineken is Premium... Premium. Premium. Premium. I need you to understand that”
He said if he was the Budweiser or Pepsi brand manager it might be a different story, but it would never run for Heineken.
What I thought would be a shoe-in for a Media Week Grand Prix died in that meeting room, but I did learn a valuable lesson that day about positioning brands and how the choices we offer clients as media practitioners can support those aims.
Don’t lead with the shiny new thing (in this case Digital OOH / Twitter), lead with the challenge that makes the shiny new thing a really obvious thing to do.
Oh and get it mocked up properly as well.
My scribblings on a scroll, we were going for the crafted vibe at MediaVest at the time probably didn’t do the idea justice.
Until next time…
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