The long game: why Heineken is trumpeting moderation

  • Advertising
  • February 9, 2016
  • Damien Venuto
The long game: why Heineken is trumpeting moderation

Every time a brand releases a campaign with a moderation message, a comment made by Google Lab’s creative director Tom Uglow comes to mind:

“ … if you watch a million awards videos they always start, ‘Our client had a problem…’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, did they? Really? Was the problem that they wanted to sell some more of their product? Oh, it was? Okay'. And that’s always the problem. That is our industry’s problem.”

In this context, where sales are integral to success, it seems a bit counter-intuitive for a brand to be suggesting that consumers should exercise moderation when making a purchase. And yet, this approach is becoming an all-too-common occurrence in the alcohol industry. 

Last week, at an event hosted at the Auckland viaduct, Heineken gathered the media and a collection of millennials to unveil its latest brand ad, which again has a very strong moderate drinking message.

This follows on from a string of brand ads stretching back to 2011, which all similarly promoted a limited drinking experience.

DB, which is owned by Heineken, also gave this strategy a local flavour last year by collaborating with a group of emerging urban artists and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra to release a single and music video trumpeting this message.   


And this message of having a choice was further consolidated with the release of a zero percent beer, which was accompanied by a hilarious spot.  

For a brand that lives and dies by the number of bottles it sells, Heineken sure does seem to spend a lot on encouraging consumers to think twice about handing over their cash. 

Asked why the brand was taking this approach, DB marketing director Maud Meijboom said it was a long-term strategy.

“If the shareholders in the short term aren’t happy, then I don’t care, because in the end it will make Heineken a sustainable company for many years to come,” she said. 

She said that short-term wins should not take precedence over longer term goals of the company.    

“We have been here for a long time and for us it might be very positive in the short term to sell a lot of beer, but excessive alcohol consumption is not good for the Heineken brand, it’s not good for DB, it’s not good for New Zealand and it’s not good for global citizens.”

This could also be seen is an example of the brand taking a stance on a social issue that it views as important to its target market. In much the same way that Tip Top removed palm oil from its products—at an enormous short-term cost to the company—after noticing a trend of consumers turning against the ingredient, Heineken is sacrificing short-term gains in favour of longevity.      

In addition, the behaviour that results from excessive drinking certainly isn’t a look that Heineken wants its brand associated with. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any brand wanting to be associated with puke on the dancefloor, slurred obscenities or a car wreck. 

What’s more, is that research from Auckland University indicates that millennials—an important target market for any beer brand—are binge drinking less than the generations that came before them.

(Source: Auckland University)

These findings are further consolidated by research that Heinken released last Thursday, showing that Kiwi millennials are increasingly turned off by overt drunkenness, with 82 percent of respondents saying they look to limit the amount of alcohol they drink on nights out, 67 percent saying moderate drinking is cool and 80 percent saying they respect others when moderating their drinking.

Such statistics also come at time when beer brands are enjoying a major surge in the sales of light beer.  

According to Nielsen New Zealand supermarket sales, low alcohol beer sales have increased from about $12 million around Christmas in 2014 to around $19 million close to Christmas last year.

While this is still only a small fraction of the total beer sales, Heineken sees massive opportunity in this space and last year launched light variation in this market (it is currently also running an outdoor campaign featuring the beer).    

Light beer sales have also been buoyed by a drop in the drink-drive limit, which has led some consumers to opt for drinks with a lower alcohol content.

And the growing preference for light beer isn't restricted to middle-aged folks trying to lead healthier lifestyles. If the feedback from millennials in attendance at last week's Heineken event is anything to go by, then they also see light beer as a viable alternative to standard drinks. In fact, one of the more vocal attendees even suggested an alternative approach to the new global campaign, featuring Heineken Light prominently throughout (Meijboom said this wasn't possible for a global campaign on account of Heineken Light not being available in every market).

Another interesting insight delivered by Miejboom, which could also be seen as a factor contributing to the decrease in binge drinking among millennials, is that social media is also playing a role in reducing public drunkenness, largely due to the shame that people feel when inappropriate images end up online.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid the embarrassment of a picture showing you having a power nap on the toilet bowl would be to abstain from drinking altogether, but this is isn't exactly conducive to the profitability of a multi-national brewer. 

And as Jeremy Bullmore explained in his essay titled ‘Marketing’s greatest challenge’: “Marketing departments have marketing budgets and marketing targets. Those targets are invariably about growth: more volume, more share of market, more profit or more of all three; but always more. Huge sums of money are directed at persuading more people to consume more quantities of more things more often. That's marketing. No annual marketing plan in history has committed its budget to achieving less of everything.”

So by interjecting its brand into the public discourse on moderate drinking, Heineken is essentially aligning itself with the mores of the burgeoning millennial group, who don’t necessarily need to pass out every time they crack open a beer. And if that group happens to opt for a Heineken or two (or, god forbid, three) every night out over the next few decades, then the marketing team at the beer company will be clinking their glasses in celebration. However, should this strategy fail, the brand could always opt for a more direct, South Park-inspired approach:

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