A thirst for innovation – Heineken's refreshing approach to creativity

Heineken earned its Creative Marketer of the Year title at this year’s Cannes Lions by pushing the boundaries. John Reynolds talks to the people behind its cutting edge campaigns.

Across a beer category frothing in creative mediocrity Heineken’s advertising has stood out for some time.

It’s no surprise then that it snatched the award for Creative Marketer of the Year at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Festival chief executive Philip Thomas highlighted the experimental approach of its recent campaigns, noting it never lost sight of the core essence of its brands, which include Fosters, Strongbow and Kronenbourg.

In 2014, for example, the company made a 15-second film based on a tweet, ran an Instagram campaign for Gay Pride month, and trialled a mobile-only campaign for a new beer-tequila brand.

For a large global giant, Heineken is surprisingly nifty. However, its sorties into social experiments, such as watching football matches virtually with star players, have never undermined its core offering of creating compelling TV spots.

Recently its TV and video spots have seldom deviated from a central tenet of visually arresting creative predicated on big universal themes.

This is writ large in some executions of the highly acclaimed ‘Legends’ campaign, created by Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, and its ‘Cities Of The World’ spots which showcase lush executions featuring urbane men sashaying through cities.

The ‘Legends’ campaign scooped the 2013 Cannes Lions Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix, with one of its spots gaining more than 10m views on YouTube.

Similarly its 2008 ‘Walk-in Fridge’ campaign had global appeal and was founded on the universal theme of what separates and attracts women and men.

Both the ‘Walk-in Fridge’ and ‘Legends’ campaigns carry something else that any ad executive will tell you does not usually travel well – humour – and Faustin Claverie, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, says nailing this was tricky.

“It’s not easy for sure. I’m French and I know I’m not funny at all in English. But I’m sure even Jerry Seinfeld is not funny in North Korean. We just try to inject humour based on globally recognised insights that will then hopefully work in most places around the world.”

Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, chairman and chief executive of Heineken, says: “For me the most successful campaigns for the Heineken brand have a few things in common. They have something cosmopolitan or worldly. Something open-minded, something optimistic, and all have wittiness, or a clever sense of humour.”

Make no bones about it, Heineken has the financial muscle some can only dream of to attract a cavalcade of talented directors and writers.

Adam Tucker, senior creative director at Leo Burnett, explains: “Beer advertising has really gone downhill. I have quite a lot of respect for what Heineken has done. It acts like a big brand and gets the best people to work on projects. It has lots of money and it shows.”

Calverie adds: “Who doesn’t want to work with the best director? Heineken’s spots are always big and epic productions. That’s the brand’s trademark in the advertising world.”

Heineken, in fact, has acted like a big pioneering brand from the start, from its debut TV spots in the 60s which awakened a Dutch audience to the taste of bottled beer, to its iconic ‘Refreshes the Parts’ UK campaign of the 80s.

As Phil Rumbol, the former UK marketing manager who dropped its famous ‘Refreshes the Parts’ strapline, points out “the use of metaphor to sell a beer brand was practically unheard of at the time”.

For Van Boxmeer, the list of Heineken campaigns he is proud of is a long one, from ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ campaign for its Dos Equis brand in the US to the company’s campaigns around its sponsorship of Champions League, Rugby World Cup and James Bond films.

Its Champions League activity encapsulates the way the company has managed to tiptoe into cultivating content and social experiments without losing sight of its big brand credentials.

According to Rumbol, the #sharethesofa campaign (a second-screen real-time football show) “makes you feel like an invited guest rather than an uninvited guest”.

Van Boxmeer adds: “Heineken has always tried to define its own style. It has also taken the lead in pushing the frontiers of the category by exploring new directions. We increasingly use social media as channels to reach consumers and we make special spin-offs of the campaign for Facebook and YouTube.”

With more than 18m Facebook ‘likes’, Heineken claims to be the biggest beer brand on the social network and has effectively used the platform to channel its creativity.

However, the company has been hit by increasing industry regulation, which has stymied creativity over the years.

Tucker says it’s no longer the case that agencies “celebrate all week” after winning beer business, as “you knew you would be making great ads”.

This is highlighted by Calverie, who says, “you can do whatever you want in Brazil (explosions, white tigers or dwarfs) but you can’t touch a Heineken bottle in Mexico”.

Van Boxmeer points out that restrictions can help stimulate creativity, but he believes that they are a “simplistic” response from politicians and do not address the central issue of alcohol abuse.

However, there seems little sign that restrictions will curtail Heineken’s creative output in the future. The business is on a roll – in the past three years, six of its brands have won 41 Lions. Previous winners of the Creative Marketer of the Year include Mars, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Heineken sits well in this company.

This feature was first published in The Drum’s Cannes issue, guest edited by Maurice Lévy.

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