It has been a busy year for Heineken. The Dutch brewer began the year teaming up with Danish rival Carlsberg to acquire Scottish & Newcastle and, after successfully integrating the control of S&N’s UK operations, it has turned its attention to its flagship brand. The appointment of Bartle Bogle Hegarty to Heineken’s 40m global advertising roster (MW last week) is being seen as a serious attempt to refresh the image of the lager, once made famous by the strapline from the Seventies and Eighties: “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”
Experts say that, at a time when overall beer sales are falling in both the on and off-trade, Heineken’s attempt to inject some personality into a brand that has failed to have a clear brand positioning after five years of relaunching as premium lager could prove to be quite significant.
Heineken is a “brand that stands for many things all at one time,” says Jim Prior, managing partner of branding agency The Partners. He says that when it launched in the UK, Heineken had a consistent brand image as it stood for refreshment and football sponsorship. “But today its identity is split into football and James Bond sponsorship, continental lager and unclear ad messages,” adds Prior.
Heineken first ditched its standard lager for premium strength lager to take on rival Stella Artois, after Heineken’s 40-year distribution deal with Whitbread came to an end in 2003. The move also followed Heineken’s failed acquisition bid for Carling UK. Britain was the last country where Heineken sold its lower alcohol brand, Heineken Cold Filtered, which proved to be successful because, according to drinks consultant Graeme Mitchell, in the Sixties and Seventies the concept of lager itself was new and the weaker Heineken “was accepted as a family drink against stronger lager such as Stella”.
First brewed in 1864 in Amsterdam, Heineken was introduced to the UK market in 1950s by leisure company Whitbread as a “weaker brew” at 3.4% alcohol content. But Heineken Cold Filtered was phased out in favour of the 5% strength premium version when, following the technological revolution of the Eighties and Nineties, UK consumers had their first taste of luxury and extravagance, leading to a change in drinking habits, according to Mitchell. “That’s exactly when Heineken’s growth became stagnant and its rival Stella rose after convincing consumers it was ‘reassuringly expensive’ and a premium lager with 5% alcohol,” he adds.
Since its 2003 relaunch as a premium lager, Heineken has maintained high TV visibility through its Champions League and the European Rugby Cup sponsorships, though it returned to TV advertising only last year after a long hiatus. But experts say that these strategies have yet to change its “weaker lager” image. According to Nielsen data, Heineken will see its sales volume fall 4.4% in the UK next year, compared with rival Carlsberg, whose sales by volume is expected to drop by 3% for the same period.
Prior adds that “premiumisation” is a packaged goods concept and simply increasing the strength and price was not enough to change Heineken’s brand perception. “But Stella was successful in deluding consumers that it was premium with its strong advertising campaigns,” he says.
Repositioning was just part of the failure. Confusing marketing strategies and lack of personality contributed to its fall in the UK, according to others. Last year, Heineken aimed to reverse its fortunes in the UK by introducing a new campaign highlighting the Continental drinking habits around its draught premium 5% Export brand. This year it tied up with the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace for a global marketing campaign.
Alex Waters, an analyst at The Value Engineers, says: “Heineken has a global heritage and is successful in the US, Holland and Far East, but here it wants to be everything for everyone, from Bond sponsorship, to continental identity and football.” He adds that continental identity appeals to the US but not to British drinkers.
Some analysts add that the declining beer market is also to blame for the brand’s failure. A spokesman for consultancy Cognosis says the British beer industry is already in a slump but, nevertheless, the trend continues to move towards the niche and premium and, therefore, Heineken could benefit from that move.
Analysts also believe S&N’s strong distribution strategy could enable Heineken to regain some of its lost ground. In January, Heineken took control of the UK operations of S&N, after the brewer was carved up between Carlsberg and Heineken for 7.6bn.
“Heineken does not have a disastrous past, so it does not need a radical repositioning. Just creating a contemporary version of its refreshing image could do the trick,” suggests Prior.
Meanwhile, both Mitchell and Waters think that adding a variant brand to the UK market such as the American Heineken Premium Light, could bring back some interest in the lager.
1864 Businessman Gerard Adriaan Heineken launches a brewery in the heart of Amsterdam called The Haystack
1873 The name Haystack is replaced by Heineken
1933 Heineken is launched in the US
1968 Whitbread gaines the right to brew Heineken lager in the UK under a licence that expires after 35 years
2003 The company axes Heineken Cold Filtered lager in favour of Heineken’s premium Dutch- brewed Heineken Export lager (with a 5% alcohol content)
Jan 2008 Heineken teams up with rival Carlsberg to buy Scottish & New- castle for 7.8bn.