For Troubled Heineken, Why Image and Status Is Not Enough

Q&A: CMO Christian McMahan on Beer Brand's New Work, and Keeping the 'Most Interesting Man' Interesting

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CHICAGO ( -- From the moment it was the first premium beer imported into the U.S. after Prohibition up until the middle of the last decade, Heineken lager was a fast-growing brand fueled by its social cachet.

Christian McMahan
Christian McMahan
But that seems like a long time ago now.

Sales of Heineken declined nearly 11% last year, and its stable mates Heineken Premium Light and Amstel Light posted even steeper declines. The struggles of the flagship brand prompted the marketer to swap agencies for the fourth time in as many years, bringing in Euro RSCG -- which has produced the remarkably effective "Most Interesting Man in the World" for the marketer's Dos Equis brand -- to handle Heineken and Heineken Light.

Now that Euro's first work on the brands is hitting the airwaves, Ad Age caught up with Chief Marketing Officer Christian McMahan, who joined the importer from Diageo in 2008, to discuss how the spots will change the conversation around the struggling brands, and keeping the Dos Equis phenomenon rolling, among other topics.

Ad Age: These new Heineken ads all seem to be in some sort of office setting -- seducing the boss' daughter at a party, propositioning the cougar boss in the corner suite -- which makes us wonder what's going on in your offices these days. Was there some sort of insight that led you to revolve the new campaign around the workplace?

Mr. McMahan: What we really wanted to do early on was have a new platform starting in a place where everyone has been. Office environments are typically a setting where you usually play it pretty safe. We define the Heineken consumer as a social all-star who doesn't play it safe. And that's how we're going to define it going forward.

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One of the new Heineken ads shows men trying to seduce the boss's daughter at a party.

Ad Age: Is that going to fix what's ailing the brand?

Mr. McMahan: You know, for the longest time, Heineken stood for being the premium brand in the U.S., and now that's become a very crowded space. It can't just trade on image and status anymore. It has to be more than that.

Ad Age: Your new idea for Heineken Light involves episodes starring two guys who, to me, look like they could be in Bud Light ads, who get mentored on trading up in various aspects of their lives by four older men. "See the light" is how the tagline goes. But is it the right time to get people to trade up again?

Mr. McMahan: We've got to start doing it now. And the truth is that people are still paying for things that are better. ... When you talk to [Heineken Light's target drinkers], they're at that stage in life where they maybe don't have a roommate anymore, and they're buying Diesel jeans instead of Gap, or they've got a flat-screen TV that's no longer resting on a milk crate. But the last thing in life that you trade up is your beer. And, you know, there are guys you meet in your life who can teach you something, so we came up with this idea with Euro around these gurus. And it quickly got to a great place.

Ad Age: Any doubt about whether you guys could keep the "Most Interesting Man in the World" rolling was silenced with the line, in the new work, that his mother has a tattoo that says "son." How do you keep this going in such a consistent fashion? Do you have to say no to a lot of the ideas that get thrown out there?

Mr. McMahan: Consumers just want to hear more from this guy. We have this internal document that sort of defines how we keep the mystery of the Most Interesting Man alive. We don't want him to jump the shark. The late-night shows always call, and the answer is always no. There have been movie offers with some pretty credible directors who have ideas about it. But that's for us to have and to hold and to not go there.

Ad Age: Heineken NV just bought the Dos Equis brand [from Femsa Cerveza], meaning your Dutch parent company will soon own the brand. A lot of marketers, particularly in the car category, say that working with multiple sets of foreign bosses can be an obstacle to good work, either because of a language barrier or politics or some other reason. It doesn't seem to have impacted Dos Equis, though. Why?

Mr. McMahan: To Femsa's credit, they've always allowed us to do what needed to get done. To take an idea that's based on the main character saying he doesn't always drink beer to a brewery isn't easy. But no matter who you're working with, great work translates, although there might be a word you need to explain every once in a while.

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