The iconic import beer has gone without fresh advertising since last December, when it abruptly fired Berlin Cameron United and tapped Wieden to succeed it. The ensuing months have been tough for the import beer, which played a major role in creating the category and thrived in recent years. While Heineken sales were up 1.6% this year through Sept. 7, according to data from Information Resources Inc., they started falling as the prime beer-selling summer season progressed, with sales falling 3.7% in July and August, as total imports posted a slight increase.
What happened? According to people familiar with the matter, several ideas for campaigns have ended up on the scrapheap, although it's not clear why. The one campaign Wieden did manage to get through -- an effort for sibling Heineken Premium Light titled "Share the Good" -- has been killed, wholesalers said last week, though a Heineken spokeswoman denied it.
That's not exactly what wholesalers wanted to hear. "Does the brand need a platform right now? Yes," said one longtime Western-state wholesaler for the brand. "Is it a major concern? Yes."
Now the pressure is on both agency and client to deliver new campaigns for Heineken and Heineken Premium Light before a February wholesaler meeting that had been originally scheduled for this month. (Heineken executives cited their recent acquisition of Newcastle Brown Ale as the primary reason for the earlier delay.)
The Heineken USA spokeswoman said only that the Heineken brand team was hard at work with Wieden on new creative. A Wieden spokeswoman declined to comment. Other agencies on the brand are MediaVest, G2 for promotion and Dieste Harmel & Partners for Hispanic marketing.
The "Share the Good" spots tried to cast Heineken Premium Light as an international movement, in an apparent reference to Heineken's status as the widest-distributed beer in the world. While it was the only campaign the agency pushed through, Wieden also produced a one-off ad for a Heineken-branded Krups home-draught appliance. While there is advertising themed "tempted by the beer of another" running in major markets, that spot was created by the previous agency, Berlin Cameron.
The absence of a new campaign is at least partially attributable to major management changes within Heineken USA. Don Blaustein last year was named president of Heineken USA, replacing Andy Thomas; and this summer the importer named Christian McMahan as its new chief marketing officer. Mr. McMahan previously oversaw Diageo's beer portfolio, which includes Guinness and Red Stripe.
The turnover isn't limited to Heineken's executives. Wieden is the lager's third agency of record in two years. It took over the Heineken and Heineken Premium Light accounts late last year, replacing Berlin Cameron, which Heineken fired after only six months. Publicis handled Heineken Lager through 2006.
To be sure, Heineken isn't the only big import struggling. Corona Extra, the biggest brand in the category, saw its case sales fall 2.8% during the first eight months of the year. That trend has caused some industry watchers to wonder aloud if the mega-imports have become so mainstream that they have lost the uniqueness that originally fueled their growth.
Proponents of that theory point to the success of a new generation of imports -- brands such as Dos Equis, Peroni and Stella Artois are all enjoying double-digit gains -- as evidence that the import sector's problems may, in fact, be unique to Heineken and Corona.
"When you look at Heineken and Corona at this point you are talking about mainstream, full-calorie beers, and that's a segment that is struggling in the U.S.," said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. "So you have a tough environment to begin with, and having [no brand platform] cannot be helping."
Though Wieden has shown a willingness to walk away from business when the relationship isn't working out -- last month it parted ways with Starbucks, a big-name client with a small budget -- it would presumably not be as keen to leave Heineken, a big-name client with a budget to match. The importer spent $136 million in measured media last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.