From Sponsorships to Social Issues, Heineken Is Punching Above Its Weight


Heineken bottles

Heineken has been a brewing leader for more than 150 years and, besides being a staple in its European home market and the seventh most popular beer brand in the world, is America’s leading beer import.

As Marketwatch notes, “Dutch brewer Heineken sells more than 8.5 million barrels of its various beer brands in the U.S., more than double that of Boston Beer Co., the biggest craft brewer. However, it’s about half of what Constellation Brands (Ballast Point, Corona, Modelo) and less than 10% of what Anheuser-Busch InBev produce or import in a year.”

The brand has long been associated with soccer (football) in Europe, where its latest campaign features UEFA Champions League legend Ronaldinho in an epic battle against a futuristic defense; goalkeeping legend Jerzy Dudek staring down the barrel of a gun in another famous UEFA Champions League shoot out; and football legend Ruud van Nistelrooy coming face to face with his old UEFA Champions League enemies:

In 2014, Heineken USA signed a 10-year, $50 million deal to wrest sponsorship of Major League Soccer away from Anheuser-Busch InBev. It now partners with nine individual MLS teams, including New York FC and the expansion Los Angeles FC. It also sponsors the International Champions Cup, a tournament of European soccer clubs held in the U.S.

“With MLS fans 51% more likely to drink a European beer than the average U.S. consumer, Heineken is making an educated bet on what is currently a niche market. Through the first half of the MLS season, IRI says Heineken sales are up 1.3% from the same period in 2016. The U.S. beer market was flat last year,” Marketwatch reports.

“The challenge was: ‘How can we punch above our weight and get that strong association with soccer?’ ” US CMO Nuno Teles says. “I’m very happy with the results we have achieved so far.”

The brand and its iconic green bottle and red star have always stood for distinctiveness and quality amid the sameness of many major American beers. As craft beers have become a bigger and bigger factor with beer drinkers worldwide, Heineken has come to occupy its own solid space between mass and class. Case in point: its use of Neil Patrick Harris to promote Heineken Light, or its on-set bar takeover on The Late Late Show With James Corden.

Heineken James Corden The Late Late Show

“Because we are talking about two different brand personalities, we end up in different channels and different price points,” Teles told Marketwatch. “We have a ‘Win With Brands’ framework where we look at what is critical for brand uniqueness, brand relevance and brand presence.” The framework spelled out:

That three-point marketing plan defines “uniqueness” as positioning (high-end restaurants vs. neighborhood bars), visual identity (minimalist bottles vs. graphic cans) and “breakthrough communications” (broad humor vs. targeted celebrity). Brand “relevance,” meanwhile, means keeping the product fresh and pricing it for the right audience. As for presence, it’s all about maximizing distribution, visibility and promotions for all products.

Within the key US market, Heineken is planning to rely more on data analytics to make the most of the vast amounts of data it collects. By doing so, it can add value as a premium brand and build stronger relationships with target customers, helping them to better compete against craft brands and win more market share.

According to Marketwatch, “Teles says Heineken has put considerable resources behind data-driven marketing that will, ideally, help it identify audiences, pair them with the right products and deliver to them the right ad message through a medium they’ll actually use. Without the resources of their larger U.S. competitors and the local presence and credibility of small craft brewers, Heineken has to dig for every advantage it can find. If big data and a relatively small portfolio can keep the pressure off, it could make Heineken a far larger player in U.S. beer than its mid-sized sales suggest.”

“The marketing that we are going to do in five years’ time will have nothing to do with the marketing that we are doing as we speak,” Teles added.

Experiential marketing success has been one big part of Heineken’s arsenal. Earlier this year, for instance, the brand made a big splash by sponsoring an Olympic-sized, water-filtering, floating swimming pool in New York City’s East River. The campaign was part of “The Cities Project by Heineken,” underscoring water pollution as part of its larger sustainability commitment.

“It’s exciting to dream about being part of the next chapter of how people could live and play in the city, and if The Cities Project by Heineken can help bring it closer to reality, we’ll raise a glass to that,” said Bjorn Trowery, Heineken USA’s Director of Communications.

Heineken also released “Worlds Apart,” a UK-filmed “social experiment” in which people with radically different political stances constructed a bar together—and then engaged in a healthy debate over their views over a cold Heineken.

In such ways, Heineken has been reaching to express sublime brand values, beyond the imbibing experience and even beyond the social messaging and marketing around it.

For instance, in the US, Heineken has made a major commitment to building an internal culture for its 600 employees, one that emphasizes engagement that leads to fulfillment and growth. Heineken USA employees collaborated on a manifesto that ends with the purpose they arrived at: “We brew experiences that inspire legendary lives,” which is posted on the wall at headquarters.

Most recently, Heineken has stepped up boldly to an issue that’s always difficult for alcohol brands: responsible drinking. It has begun dedicating substantial resources to underline Heineken’s equity by being a good corporate citizen.

“Of course we want people to consume more of our product,” Gianluco Di Tondo, senior global brand director, told IBTimes. “But the promotion of responsible drinking is in our corporate DNA,” with about 10 percent of Heineken’s headline marketing budget going to support the program.