How Heineken’s Special Blend of Storytelling and Science Won the Day

Brewer takes home Cannes' top marketing award

Most marketers are thrilled when they get top recognition once at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, never mind taking the Marketer of the Year award home twice in the past decade, as Heineken has. In the last three years, six of Heineken's ad efforts have won 41 Lions, including the coveted Grand Prix in Creative Effectiveness for "Heineken's Legendary Journey: Justifying a Premium the World Over" in 2013, from Wieden + Kennedy, that sought to position the beer as a global brand. W+K is the creative lead among a roster of shops that have also produced Cannes award-winning work: Saatchi working for Tecate; Havas, Dos Equis; and Droga5, Strongbow and Newcastle Brown Ale. (W+K's "The Odyssey" Heineken ad also won a Clio gold in the Direction category for production house MJZ in 2014.)

How will those agencies fare this year in the South of France? Heineken USA's CMO Nuno Teles explains how science and storytelling successfully drive sales and win awards.

Heineken's marketing model is about creativity as well as consumer understanding, Teles says. 

Why do you think Heineken advertising resonates so well with consumers?

We deliver outstanding creativity because we are convinced a marketing model that starts with science, insight and understanding of all that data will grow our business. But then you need to deliver it through a storytelling mystique. We call this the three-act approach, and it's not just about creativity; it has to be rooted in consumer understanding, too.

What business results can you share to measure effectiveness?

Heineken Light was declining by 18 percent, so we went to the science. We understood consumers would change behavior and start drinking a premium light beer if they were convinced it was indeed the best out there, which Heineken Light is—and we have the awards to prove it. [Heineken Light was named Best Tasting Low Calorie Lager twice at the World Beer Championships.] That's the science part. The storytelling happened when Wieden + Kennedy came up with the idea that if you're truly the best, we'll make a celebrity [actor Neil Patrick Harris] go off camera to drink it because he can't resist the taste. [It's illegal for a spokesperson to drink on camera in a TV ad.] Between TV and digital, we reached 35 million consumers in just three days. Now the brand's growth is up 7 percent.

Other recent success stories?

Our four priority brands are growing significantly faster than the marketplace. If you look at Heineken Lager, with the "Legends" campaign, it's growing 2.3 percent when the overall beer market is declining by 0.8 percent. "Legends" is seen and perceived by the U.S. consumer as completely differentiated, one of a kind, and that is driving brand reappraisal. With Strongbow, we think we will be significantly awarded this year for both the ad "Slow-Motion Horse" as well as the Patrick Stewart campaign. We were struggling with the brand and were the fourth brand in the marketplace. Now we are growing by 117 percent, five times more than the overall cider category.

Another example is Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign. The insight of the consumer is they are afraid to be perceived as boring and they feel "I would rather be dead than dull." It gives them a reason to talk to their friends in the bar about those interesting stories and it's become one of the most awarded campaigns. This is another example of how an awarded campaign gives us results: Dos Equis is growing, to date, 9 percent in a [declining] market. Another important part contributing to the campaign's success obviously is the "Mexification" of America, which is a very important trend. We see general-market consumers adopting Mexican culture, so it's not just a demographic—it's not just Hispanics moving to the U.S. and growing in population and drinking more. So, again, it's creativity—but it's rooted in insights.

What other trends are impacting your consumers and how you reach them in messaging?

Mexification is the biggest trend. Maybe as strong is the industry's "Beer Renaissance" trend with craft beer, which is about local beers. Another important one is flavor promiscuity, with seven out of 10 beer consumers keen to try new flavors. That's the reason we are investing in [Strongbow] cider and why we are also targeting females who are looking for new tastes. Another trend is the importance of wellness, which is also the reason why Heineken Light has grown so much. Consumers are increasingly concerned about their health.

You're putting an emphasis on Major League Soccer in the U.S. this year, in addition to your pre-existing UEFA relationship with the game in Europe. Are we going to see a lot of soccer-related advertising?

That's another important example of creativity in ads we are trying to bring that will allow us to be bold. Soccer is a great platform for us to reach out to 90 million millennial consumers in the U.S., including Mexican-American millennials. How can we, from a creative angle, look at soccer from a strong passion point and leverage our credentials of support for the UEFA Champions League?

Soccer is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. We are not just surfing a well-established sports platform, we're creating a new cultural trend about sport.

What are your other big priorities currently in the U.S.? What are you doing with digital?  

We've been conducting several studies linking digital and cultural exposure to retail sales. So now we know exactly what sales niche we can generate through TV as well as through digital channels—and we know Facebook, Twitter in comparison with TV. TV will continue to be important, but after looking at five different age groups, we see digital is by far more effective with young adults. We obviously still need TV to reach out to more adult age groups. But digital will always drive hyper-fragmentation. I truly believe as a marketer that the future will be one of hyper-fragmentation. It's my personal battle to really be able to change the way we do marketing and to really deliver the right message to the right segment because nowadays all those digital partners allow us to have this type of marketing.

How involved do Heineken executives get in the creative process?

You do it in collaboration. I strongly believe great ideas are the consequence of a great client/agency relationship. There's no such thing as me giving you the brief and you give me the response to it and that's it. Things get messy—life is not a straight line. Some days you get great work, some other days you get not-so-great work. How can we keep collaborating in a way that both parties will improve their ability to develop great work? This is a challenge and this will continue to be a challenge. But that's the secret of a good client and agency collaboration.

Tell us about Heineken's Global Commerce University and how it contributes to creativity, problem solving and communications?

We need the best people to deliver the best work, and the Global Commerce University is a very important starting point. How can we have the best people always with the best thinking and the best ultimate training? We see it as a way to step up the capacity of our team to keep delivering good work. Every single Monday, we hold what we call the "Creative Ladder" where we share what we believe is the advertising's great creative work. We continually benchmark because being creative in an absolute vacuum does not make any sense. Rather, how creative are you in comparison with your peers? I want to excel in creativity, but that is in relative terms to my competition. And Global Commerce University is a way to not only train us but to also share among ourselves what is good work.

How are mobile and social changing your marketing efforts and how do you ensure brand consistency across all channels?

Here's an example: We have an annual [national distributor] convention with 3,000 people and I can do my presentation using my phone. That gives you a sense of how important the global improvised world is. With our Desperados [a Heineken beer blended with tequila], which is the first of its kind in the U.S. and one where we are targeting millennials, we are developing the marketing in the Southeastern U.S., with some regions using just TV and some other areas using digital. We reached 23 percent consumer awareness in the regions where we used mobile, digital and social and close to zero [1-2 percent] where we used only TV.

Design is a high priority at Heineken. Can you bring us up to date with product packaging and innovations?

Design is how you show off. It's as important as you showing up well dressed in a meeting. So that makes it quite important for us. A good example would be our "Cities" campaign. If you go to an outlet in the U.S., you can find a can with the locations Miami, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco—up to nine U.S. cities—displayed on it. That's a design manifestation. You have a big red star displayed with "Heineken" and a city. This is a city summer edition and we use design to show how we see the importance we have about design. It's crucial for us. Not every brand is bold enough to move away from its traditional packaging design for a period of time and switch dress for the occasion.

What can new Heineken ad agency partners expect in working with you?

We truly believe that creativity drives results and creativity needs to be delivered with bold moves. We are serious about that. They need to agree that … creativity will drive people forward, and therefore I will ask for and buy good creativity. I will not tolerate average creativity from any partners.