Lessons in beer marketing from Tiger Beer’s Sean O’Donnell

Tiger Beer's global brand director Sean O’Donnell has had a busy year since taking charge of the brand last year, moving from New Zealand to Singapore. The Drum took some time to find out how he's building the Singapore-born brand.

Since joining he has launched the global proposition ‘brewed against the odds’, followed by ‘brewed for your fire’ for Tiger Crystal brand and even managed to launch in Brazil. The team is also getting ready to celebrate Tiger’s 90th birthday in 2022 which incidentally coincides with the Lunar Year of the Tiger. The Drum speaks to the beer-man of many years on his recipe for the Tiger brand which is already the 2nd largest brand in the Heineken company portfolio and how he plans to make it even bigger and more global.

What are some of the unique features of the Asian beer market?

Asia is a huge continent, which makes marketing beer here super interesting. On-premise consumption (bars, restaurants, hawker centres) in many Asian countries is significantly greater than in many Western markets. The experience that beer brands can create in these venues can be very creative.

Secondly, the biggest beer occasion in Asia is with food, again quite different to many Western markets. When you think of many Asian foods you think of spicy and hot, so beer’s role and taste profile is different. In general, Asian beer brands are less bitter and more refreshing than beers in the West, hence craft beer in Asia is only very small in scale.

Flavours is another emerging trend. Taste profiles in Asia are interesting. When you go to the hawker centres or food courts across Asia and see all the different types of flavoured beverages you can get – it’s quite amazing. Tiger Radler has been a success in certain markets, and there's more potential in flavours across APAC.

How different is beer marketing to the Asian consumer?

Countries across Asia have different languages and customs and therefore a significant amount of localisation of campaigns is required to ensure consumer understanding and relevance. Great ideas do travel but there are nuances we see across markets when creating global campaigns.

As a brand, we also believe that creativity differs in Asia from western markets. When marketing in Asia, there is more room for creativity in the how (i.e. how you communicate), with simplicity in ‘what’ you are communicating. Ideas that use platforms and channels in creative ways cut through.

Tiger Beer is a brand that was born in Asia and has gone global. What have been the pillars of its global footprint?

Tiger has a long history - it’s been part of the cultural fabric of Singapore and Malaysia since 1932. All the world's best brewers at the time were in Europe and North America and told the Tiger brewers it was impossible to brew great beer on the Equator owing to the non-availability of the ingredients and the unsuitable temperature. The Tiger brewers defied those conventions and since then it has been known for brewing a world-class tropical lager ever since.

For many of our markets, the brand’s provenance from Singapore is quite aspirational. Singapore's only a small country but it's very modern, very progressive and one of the great growth stories in the Asia and Southeast Asia region for the last 60 years. All that combined helps Tiger’s positioning and allows us to sit in a premium positioning across the APAC region.

What does the global brand proposition, ‘brewed against the odds’ stand for?

One can have an ice-cold Tiger Beer at a local hawker centre in Singapore, but then one could also be having a Tiger flying business class on Singapore Airlines. So, it's a brand that constantly defies conventions, which led to the launch of our global proposition ‘brewed against the odds’. It was launched in late 2020 with our global creative partner Publicis One Team Tiger.

Tiger brand is known to encourage people to have the courage to step forward and follow their own path to success by defying the odds – it’s what we refer to as ‘Uncaging your Tiger’, a positioning which was introduced in 2010 and has worked very well.

Tiger Beer – 'brewed Against the odds' conceptualised by Publicis One Team Tiger

What are the key drivers of the growth story, in APAC and beyond?

Tiger has grown exceptionally quickly in the last few years since 2010 when the global brand positioning, was launched. In 2020, we launched the Tiger brand story, which is resonating with a generation that we call the ‘new progressives’ – it’s an emerging generation that’s ambitious and optimistic but sometimes lacks the confidence to fully express themselves and stay true to their passions, especially given today’s challenging environment. Tiger Crystal was launched in 2019 to cater to the consumers, particularly in Asia, looking for a slightly different, slightly less bitter taste profile. It fits well to be positioned as a more premium product through its communications and packaging.

Tiger is the growth engine in APAC for Heineken company and the top 3 biggest markets currently are Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. The brand’s growth in Vietnam has been truly phenomenal and was a game-changer for Tiger over the last 10 years. Beyond APAC, our biggest market is Nigeria, a huge beer market where Tiger is currently the fastest-growing beer brand. In 2021, we launched into the Americas with Brazil and Peru as our first markets and the early signs are promising.

Tiger Crystal – ‘brewed for your fire’

What is the post-pandemic blueprint for the brand?

As a global brand, all our key markets have dealt with Covid-19 restrictions. From a beer category perspective, the pandemic has particularly impacted the on-premise food and beverage sector, which is a key channel for Tiger. Lockdowns in many countries have led to changes in consumer behaviour around home consumption and purchase behaviour on e-commerce.

Despite these challenges, 2022 is going to be a special year for Tiger, as it will be the brand’s 90th birthday. There are plans to launch the year at scale with new communication, experiences, and partnerships to inspire consumers across Asia and beyond. There are plans to launch innovations that reach more consumers with better products that are relevant for all, male and female, over the next two years.

For a brand that is the second largest in the Heineken portfolio, what are the key marketing challenges?

Tiger is still a relatively young brand in many markets across APAC and therefore competes against well-established local mainstream beer brands. One of the biggest challenges is ‘premiumising’ the category through differentiation: Tiger has a premium price positioning in the market, however, currently, 80% of beer sold across Asia is positioned in the mainstream and economy segments.

Critical to our success is communicating Tiger’s high-quality product and great taste as a beer that’s brewed for the heat of Asia. Therefore, trial and sampling are critical.

As a beer marketer of many years, what would you call out as some key learnings of the category?

Beer brands used to be presented in very generic ways, but with the growth of new trends in alcohol and beer across the globe, the category has changed dramatically. What craft beer and new entrants have shown is that every touchpoint matters, from the brand story and origins to the packaging. Building brand experiences that go beyond and bring life to the brand is becoming critical to success.

Consumers are looking for new and exciting products and the beer category is no exception. With changing trends in taste, new drinking occasions and health-conscious consumers entering the market, innovation is critical to driving brand progression, relevance, and scale. This has been a significant change in the last 20 years: prior to this, many beer brands were unchanged for decades. Innovation has brought in fresh thinking on flavours, packaging, formats, and this is reaching new consumers who previously didn’t engage. It’s truly an exciting time to work in the beer category!

From a communication point of view, successful beer brands need to deliver both highly emotive communications and strong functional credentials. Great work from iconic brands such as Heineken and Guinness have become part of the culture, so having world-class creative partners is critical to our success. Beer brands are highly emotive: many consumers hold their favourite brands very close to their hearts.