Heineken turns away from TV advertising

Heineken’s decision to axe UK television advertising in favour of press and poster ads and an increased focus on its Champions League sponsorship has raised a few eyebrows in the marketing industry. Since its 2003 UK relaunch as a premium strength lager, under the name Heineken Export, sales in the UK have collapsed, from &£500m a year to about &£100m. Many observers believe that TV ads are vital for Heineken to compete with rivals such as Stella Artois, Grolsch, and standard lagers Foster’s and Carlsberg, which each spend up to &£10m a year on iconic advertising campaigns – mainly through television.

But Heineken UK managing director Rob Marijnen says next year the company will plough its &£6.5m TV budget into alternative forms of marketing, and the overall marketing budget will be boosted. “The enormously cluttered TV environment makes it difficult to make ads that stand out. It is also very expensive and its effectiveness is questionable,” he said in an interview last week.

Even so, Heineken UK marketing director Iain Newell, who joined the company in August from rival InBev, says the brand will maintain high TV visibility through its sponsorships of Champions League football and the European Rugby Cup. The priority will be to exploit these sponsorships through point-of-purchase marketing and other promotions.

Newell says: “The days of putting 60 per cent of marketing budgets above the line, getting the television rating points [TVRs] and thinking ‘that’s the job done’ have gone. You have got to be more clever in how you use marketing investment.” The new strategy of associating Heineken with top-class sport and music events includes using interactive television on ITV; a “new type of poster campaign”, positioned near football grounds, that will respond to match results within an hour of the game finishing; and a promotion, called World Gigs, that allows drinkers to win trips to top music events.

But one senior beer buyer at a major supermarket chain is sceptical of the strategy. “I’d be disappointed if Heineken axed its TV ads because beer is an extremely competitive market and Heineken has to compete with the big boys. Heineken has still got a low market share. There are alternative ways of marketing, but it won’t reach the scale it aspires to,” he says.

Meanwhile, another observer suggests the brand’s recent TV campaign, featuring Goodfellas star Ray Liotta and created by Clemmow Hornby Inge, backfired after falling foul of advertising restrictions. The original ad was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for implying that the higher alcoholic strength of the lager made it superior, and it had to be reworked. But Newell says the campaign was highly effective, even after the strapline change.

Another source claims that it is precisely the clutter in TV advertising that provides an opportunity for Heineken to create a campaign that stands out. “Stella and John Smith’s have been able to cut through on TV, not because of bigger budgets or media strategy, but because of the consistency of their strategies and the quality of their creative executions,” says Neil Christie, managing director of Wieden & Kennedy, which previously handled international assignments for Heineken until the business was handed to Amsterdam agency Strawberry Frog in the summer.

Despite the steep fall in sales, Heineken insists that a relaunch was the right decision, and predicts that UK sales will reach more than &£130m this year. The company says it expects to return to profit as people discover the superior taste of the premium version.

David Benady

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