CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- "He lives vicariously through himself."
"The police often question him just because they find him interesting."
And he can drive an expensive imported beer brand to double-digit sales gains during a recession that's forced many of its competitors into steep declines.
He is the "Most Interesting Man in the World," the 60-something Connery-meets-Castro-meets-Hemingway character created by ad agency Euro RSCG to sell Heineken USA's Dos Equis brand.
Sales are up
Through mid-June, a period when imported beer sales dropped 11%, sales of Dos Equis rose more than 17%, moving the brand into eighth place among imports (in a tie with Stella Artois), when shipments rose 13%. That success prompted Heineken executives, who had been running the ads since 2007 in a few stronghold markets for the brand, to take the message national this spring.
"There's never really been an import brand that's been built so clearly through advertising," said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights.
Equally unprecedented is the campaign's reliance on two things rarely seen -- actively shunned, even -- in beer ads: a gray-haired protagonist, played in the Dos Equis ads by veteran TV actor Jonathan Goldsmith, who in every ad acknowledges that he doesn't always drink beer.
But to hear the people behind the campaign tell it, there was really no other way to effectively attack the 2006 brief, which challenged the agency to "establish a distinctive, desirable and premium identity as evidenced by significant growth of key brand-tracking measures," which would, in turn, be "different from other brands," a "cool brand" and be "worth paying more for."
They came up with a character who has spent his life, according to the grainy images in the spots, engaging in swordplay, leading mysterious expeditions, reeling in large sailfish and arm wrestling soldiers. The images are provided without context or explanation, which is the point.
Brand has 'a lot of mystique'
"We had a tremendous amount of research that showed us this brand, for consumers, had a lot of mystique," said Mary Perhach, Euro's account director on the brand since the agency won the business in 2004. "Drinkers wanted to be seen by their friends, and by ladies, as interesting."
And who doesn't? But beer brands have rarely picked older actors to appeal to their youthful targets, and when they have -- Anheuser-Busch asking George Burns to sell a low-alcohol beer in the 1980s; Coors' use of aging athletes such as Willie Mays and Bobby Hull in the late 1990s; and Miller Lite's use of Burt Reynolds as a spokesman in a 2007 -- results have generally been poor.
Dos Equis saw an aging spokesman as an opportunity. "What's interesting about him is that he doesn't compete with our consumer," said Kheri Tillman, VP-marketing for Dos Equis. "He's more of an inspiration. He's an aspirational target for them."
That's seldom clearer than it is online, where the Most Interesting Man hosts a Most Interesting Academy, in which he delivers various life lessons and opines for an avid Facebook following of about 58,000 fans (the brand has an additional 114,000 fans on its own page) who seem to hang on his every word.
Consider that, on July 8, he advised his Facebook followers: "Every now and then, bite off more than you can chew." Within an hour, 965 people had blessed the comment with an approving "likes this," and 110 more had taken the time to write out their own responses, many of which were attempts at similar pearls of wisdom. Likewise, on the Dos Equis' website, which he dominates, visitors spend an average of 7.42 minutes per visit, according to Google Analytics.
Lines heard in bars
And the campaign, which snared a Titanium Lion at Cannes this year, has also made its way into bars, restaurants and nightclubs. "We hear people saying the lines in bars all the time," said Jim Doney, president of Chicago Beverage Systems, a major wholesaler of Heineken, MillerCoors and Crown Imports beer brands, who credits the marketing for his 32% boost in Dos Equis sales this year.
That a key distributor such as Mr. Doney is willing to publicly shower praise on a beer campaign whose protagonist admits to sometimes trying wine and spirits is, in itself, noteworthy, as the "Most Interesting Man" effort is believed to be the first beer campaign in history to have done so.
"That was a question in my early conversations with [Heineken CEO Don Blaustein], and he even questioned it a little bit," Mr. Doney said. "But I think what it's shown is that it gives it some credibility, because a lot of people don't just drink beer."
Asked what's next for the Most Interesting Man, Euro Chief Creative Officer Conway Williamson that the agency won't try to fix what's working. "He'll just keep going until his sailboat disappears."