Heineken Taps Fred Armisen for 'Social Experiment'

If a Pay Phone Rings in New York City, How Many People Will Answer?

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Heineken -- which in recent years has sought to leverage the global star power of the fictional James Bond character -- has added two real-life celebrities to its U.S. marketing mix: Neil Patrick Harris and Fred Armisen.

Mr. Harris debuted last week in a new taste-focused TV campaign for Heineken Light that marks a significant new investment in the struggling brand, which had gotten very little ad support in recent years. (Creativity has more on that campaign here.)

Now Mr. Armisen is popping up in a new digital video for regular Heineken that is part of the brand's global "Cities of the World" campaign. The newest phase of the campaign, called "Routine Interruptions," uses what Heineken is calling "social experiments" that aim to pull city dwellers from their usual routines.

Mr. Armisen's video, called "Ringing Payphone," features him anonymously calling a New York City payphone to see who picks up. He keeps his identity shielded, while asking people to "come across the street." Those who obliged -- and only a handful of people did out of thousands that passed by the phone, according to Heineken -- were invited on stage with Mr. Armisen at the Comedy Cellar comedy club on MacDougal Sreet. The teaser ad is above and a fuller-length version is expected to be posted on Tuesday at RoutineInterruptions.com.

Mr. Armisen, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and star of IFC's "Portlandia," said in an interview that "the most surprising [thing] was that anyone spoke to me at all." Asked if it marked the beginning of a new relationship with Heineken, he said: "That's always my hope, but the way that everyone does anything is you do everything little by little, in increments."

As part of the campaign -- which is by Wieden & Kennedy, New York -- Heineken will encourage people to enter their phone numbers at RoutineInterruptions.com. The brand promises to call "thousands" of entrants, asking people to partake in an unknown activity. The events are described as "cultural activities that inspire them to try something new." Examples of rewards could include a private concert in a living room. Flavorpill Media, which runs a culture blog called Flavorwire, is assisting with the experiential promotion. In a separate social media effort, the brand will give real-time recreational suggestions to people who tweet "@wherenext."

Heineken, which is the nation's second-largest imported beer behind Corona, eked out 1.44% dollar sales growth in the 52 weeks ending May 18 to $676.6 million, trailing total import category growth of 8.06%, according to IRI, which excludes bars. Heineken Light, which is the 13th-largest import by market share, had a 12.56% sales decline in that period to $58.6 million in sales.

Ad Age recently caught up with Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Nuno Teles to learn more about the importer's strategy:

Ad Age: Are you making a conscious effort to use more celebrities in ads?

Mr. Teles: I am in favor of having strong insights and big ideas to bring those insights to life. If a celebrity helps to make the brand even more the hero of the story … I am in favor of it. Using celebrities just for the sake of using celebrities, I don't see the value.

[With] Routine Interruptions we started the campaign with a strong insight which is the city has a lot of offer you, but after a certain point you start ignoring what the city has to offer you … The point of view of Heineken is that in order to progress, you need to go beyond your comfort zone … This is what we wanted to dramatize [with the Armisen video].

Ad Age: There is not a lot of overt branding in the payphone video. How does this help you sell more beer?

Mr. Teles: We believe that it's not just by shouting loud and clear the brand name or brand image that you are going to get consumer engagement. It's far more important to share the brand point of view and to engage the consumer through the content ... For us, the most important thing was this idea that in order to progress, you need to go beyond your comfort zone.

By engaging consumers with the content, we will then achieve … a higher level of bonding between the consumer and the brand, and therefore [they] are more likely to buy it.

Ad Age: Heineken is trailing the larger imported category. Are you satisfied with the brand's performance?

Mr Teles: We are indeed happy with the recent performance with the brand, the fact that the brand is in the black.

Ad Age: It seems that Mexican brands are driving most of the growth in beer imports. Are people still interested in European imports?

Mr. Teles: We need to go beyond just the fact that we are a European import. … The brand point of view [is more important] -- that in order to progress, you need to go beyond your comfort zone. … The brand's heritage [and] the brand's credentials are an important fact, but we are always focused on the future.

Ad Age: It's been a while since Heineken Light has been on TV. How much are you investing in it?

Mr. Teles: We are going to have a reach and a frequency through TV that is very, very significant.

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