Are taglines still relevant? Heineken says no

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Taglines have been a hallmark of beer advertising for decades. Some of the classic ones, like "Great Taste, Less Filling," "This Bud's For You" and "Head for the Mountains of Busch," endure even when they aren't actively used in ads. But Heineken USA with its newest campaign is putting an end to the practice of concocting a pithy phrase to sell suds, believing that the practice has gone staler than last week's beer.

The brewer conducted consumer research on the relevancy and recall of taglines in today's media environment and found diminishing returns. "The percentages were super low," says Bernardo Spielmann, senior brand director for the Heineken brand. "We said, 'Let's simplify the process.'"

So rather than ending ads with a cute phrase, new ads simply conclude with the word "Heineken" and its familiar red star logo. "We think that Heineken stands for a set of values rather than a set of words, and I think people will see that," says Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Jonnie Cahill. Internally, the brewer calls the campaign "Cheers to the Unexpected"—because they had to call it something—but beyond the press release, you won't see that phrase in consumer-facing assets.

Ads mark a change in direction from the brand's recent campaign, which began in early 2016 and starred actor Benicio del Toro. He plugged attributes like the beer's original recipe and that Heineken has been family-owned since 1873. The product and heritage focused campaign had a tagline, "There's More Behind the Star."

The new campaign attempts to reclaim the brand's standing as a social beverage with ads portraying it consumed in high-energy occasions, like soccer viewing and a wild party.

"We are re-affirming what we've always been, which is a product that enhances people's social lives and helps them enjoy life a little bit more," Cahill says. Heineken, and beer brands in general, have lost some of that social standing to liquor brands. Spirits have seized on newly opened advertising channels, like the ability to now run spots in NFL games.

With Heineken's new campaign, "you feel a little bit of a gear change here in energy versus our previous work. And I think that is one space where spirits really have portrayed quite consistently a higher energy or higher payoff occasion," Cahill says. "This reinforces beer's role in those high-entergy moments."

Trying to squeeze in a tagline might've just gotten in the way of that goal, especially in the digital media environment in which brands are running shorter videos. "Everybody's under efficiency pressure from media-buy side," Cahill says. "You really have to value the worth and impact of every second. I guess 20 years ago when we were doing this, you had time," he adds. But now, "you have to make sure the seconds are really driving an emotional resonance."

Executives declined to share the campaign's media budget, but said spending in the second half of the year would increase by 11% compared with the same time frame last year. The brand could use a lift. Sales fell 3.6 percent in the year-to-date period ending May 26, according to Nielsen data cited by Beer Marketer's Insights.

Recovering from 'lighter is better' ad gaffe

The new campaign plugs both Heineken and Heineken Light. The marketer had been running separate campaigns for each. Earlier this year the brewer was under fire for a Heineken Light campaign called "sometimes lighter is better" that critics, including Chance the Rapper, derided as racist. One ad showed a bartender sliding a Heineken Light past several dark-skinned bargoers before reaching a women with lighter skin.

The global campaign by Publicis had been running in Europe as far back as last summer without much noticeable backlash. But it immediately drew fire when it began running in the U.S. in March. Heineken quickly apologized and pulled the ads.

"It was a mistake. We are learning from it," Cahill told Ad Age last week. "We are not brushing it under the carpet. But I think the people that understand the brand also know that's just not our style and it's not the kind of thing we would do intentionally."

Heineken already had robust ad testing process in place. But the marketer is adding more review layers that extend beyond traditional consumer focus groups to include academics, social leaders and community groups, Cahill says. The goal is to understand nuances and "really challenge the creative and look it in a way to say, 'Are we good here?'"

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