LAGGING HEINEKEN, BASS TO RETREAT FROM THE EDGE: BRANDS' GROWTH NOT KEEPING UP, SO IMPORTS WILL TRY LOW-KEY ADS

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Edgy ads are out for imports Heineken lager and Bass ale.

Heineken USA early next year will break a $40 million campaign replacing controversial, 2-year-old creative that focused on its red star icon, and Guinness Bass Import Co. is stamping out its "bootlicker" campaign in favor of advertising that's expected to have a humorous, but historical, theme.

Beer wholesalers criticized both previous efforts for being too strange and not building on the perceived heritage and quality of the brands.

FAILED TO KEEP PACE

Even worse, the campaigns failed to keep the brews in step with the 13% growth enjoyed by the import beer segment in 1997, according to industry newsletter Impact. Heineken -- which was knocked off its 60-year perch as the best-selling import by Corona Extra -- grew 6.3%; Bass grew 12%.

Now, Heineken and Bass are going more mainstream in their advertising.

Heineken already has been running ads from new agency Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, supporting Heineken in cans and highlighting the brand's sponsorship of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

FOR EVERYDAY OCCASIONS

The campaign kicking off in January, during the National Football League playoffs, will position Heineken as a high-quality beer suitable for everyday occasions, said a wholesaler who saw the advertising.

For example, one spot shows some buddies watching a football game and cheering as their team scores a touchdown. But then one spills his Heineken, and his expression transforms from joy to depression.

Another follows a guy who brings a six-pack of domestic beer to a party. He opens the refrigerator to see it is full of Heineken. He then walks off with a Heineken.

"These are the best ads I've ever seen for Heineken," the wholesaler said.

On a smaller scale, Guinness Bass next month is expected to run TV commercials featuring a fanatical Bass enthusiast who tells strangers about the brew's connection to historical figures, an industry executive said.

The campaign, which includes a radio effort now airing, will run in a handful of markets including Chicago.

Agency is Weiss Stagliano Partners, New York.

Guinness Bass executives would not comment on their ad plans.

FOCUSED ON HISTORY

With the new advertising, the importer is returning to a focus on the brand's history. The edgy outdoor and print campaign featuring photography by David La-Chapelle -- including a memorable image of a man licking a boot -- departed from that and was criticized by some wholesalers as too extreme.

Guinness Bass also is expected to soon break a new outdoor campaign from Weiss in a handful of select markets for Czech import Pilsner Urquell. Targeting young adult hipsters, ads will redefine Pilsner Urquell as the beer for "bohemians."

In keeping with the free life-style positioning, Guinness Bass will run an essay contest in which it will give the winner a year's salary to take a year off to travel or fulfill some other dream.

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