Heineken Leaves 'Legends' Behind, Talks About Beer Again

Product-Focused 'There's More Behind the Star' Campaign Stars Benicio del Toro

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Heineken is replacing its image-obsessed "Legends" campaign with a new approach that makes the beer the star. But the product-focused effort, called "There's More Behind the Star," will attempt to maintain some of the charm of the old campaign by using an Academy Award-winning actor to sell the message.

Benicio del Toro, who won an Oscar for his role in the 2000 movie "Traffic," will appear in ads breaking on Monday that use humor to tout Heineken's presence in 192 countries. Future ads will promote Heineken's continued use of its original recipe with just three ingredients: water, hops and barley. Other spots will play up the founding Heineken family.

The global campaign's creation was led by Heineken's U.S. division but will eventually run in 70 countries. The agency is Publicis Worldwide, which worked on the effort from its offices in New York and Italy. The ads were filmed in Barcelona.

The tagline has a double meaning, referring to the Heineken brand's red star and the fact that Mr. del Toro is a star -- although the first spot (above) pokes some fun at his fame, or lackthereof, as a couple mistakes him for Antonio Banderas. The digital films will show Mr. del Toro interacting with Heineken's global brewmaster Willem van Waesberghe.

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Heineken will spend heavily behind the new message. The campaign includes six TV ads running through 2017, as well as five digital films. It will be backed by the largest media investment Heineken USA has ever made in the states, according to the brand. Heineken spent $104.6 million in measured media on the Heineken mega brand in 2014, the latest full year available from the Ad Age Datacenter, which uses Kantar Media figures.

Publicis Worldwide took over as the lead global agency for Heineken in June after the brand cut ties with Wieden & Kennedy. W&K -- which ran the account from its Amsterdam office -- was behind the "Legends" campaign that launched in 2011 and featured sophisticated and cool leading men navigating urban environments with style and panache. The effort earned Heineken the 2013 Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix and also helped the brewer win 2015 Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year.

So why change now? "The Legends campaign was clearly on the image and attitude of the brand," said Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Nuno Teles. "So we were elevating the consumer to elevate the brand, that was the strategy." But "we felt is there a way to balance better" with messages that deliver product claims, while also maintaining a witty and chic tone, he said.

"I think it's glaringly obvious that consumers are more and more interested in products, the stories behind them, what's in them, the ingredients ... who's behind them," said Ralph Rijiks, senior VP of marketing for Heineken at Heineken USA.

That is especially true in the beer industry, where big brands have struggled to compete against trendy craft brews that have eschewed expensive image campaigns in favor of quirky grassroots marketing that is often all about the beer.

As a result, craft brands have undercut big beer brands when it comes to quality messaging. This has led big brewers to fight back by talking up their own heritage and product stories. Budweiser's "Brewed the Hard Way" campaign is an example of this. Ads show brewers and ingredients and end with the line "not backing down since 1876."

The beer portfolios of big brewers are dominated by lagers. By contrast, craft brewers make a lot of ales, although they have begun making more lagers. Lagers are considered to be harder to brew. So big lager brands -- like Bud -- are subtly pointing this out in their marketing. By talking more about its beer, Heineken is going down this same path.

"I challenge you to find me a lager as refreshing, as tasty, as Heineken brewed by a local craft brewer," Mr. Teles said. The brewer also has its own heritage story to tell, which has been lost amid the recent focus on lifestyle ads. The brand traces its roots to 1864 when Gerard Adriaan Heineken bought a single brewery in Amsterdam. Heineken was the first beer shipped from Europe to the U.S. in the wake of Prohibition, according to its web site.

"Shouldn't we be talking more about what we are? Because we are the first craft beer in the world, and we should be proud of that," Mr. Teles said. "And we were the first beer coming after Prohibition to the U.S."

Added Mr. Rijiks: "When you do tell these facts to someone they are really surprised and have no idea. Heineken is a household name in the U.S., but how much do you really know it?"

As part of the new campaign Heineken will respond directly to consumers on Facebook and Twitter, with videos of Mr. van Waesberghe in which he addresses people by their first names, like this example below:

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The campaign comes as Heineken has shown some positive sales signs in the U.S. of late. Sales grew 1.9% in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24 to $730.7 million, according to IRI, which does not include bar sales. But the brand still lost 1.23 market share points in the import segment, falling to 13.14%, as Mexican imports such as Modelo Especial and Corona (the two largest imported beers) continued to surge.

Heineken USA executives remain pleased with the progress of Heineken Light, which since 2014 has run ads starring Neil Patrick Harris. Ads use a witty tone but also plug the brand's taste. This formula of mixing humor with a product messaging resembles the new marketing approach on the mother brand. Mr. Teles said Light finished 2015 with a 9% increase in "base volumes," which he said does not include promotions. Overall, Heineken Light's sales fell 2.1% to $57.9 million in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, according to IRI.

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