Why Heineken is making sustainability its ‘north star’ for product innovation

The beer company’s UK marketing director says sustainability in product design must go much further than just packaging. 

heineken uefaBrands need to keep up with sustainability expectations or risk being side-lined by retailers, according to Heineken UK’s marketing director Michael Gillane.

Although the beer company believes working on sustainability is the right thing to do to add value for consumers, there are also “defensive” reasons why companies should adopt a greater sustainability focus, he tells Marketing Week.  

“If you were to say that you won’t make those changes, you’ll have an enormous barrier with retailers. Retailers are more and more demanding,” he says.

“They are advocating strongly on behalf of consumers. There are defensive reasons why you should evolve, because the retailer will stop you accessing the customer.” 

Heineken, which also owns brands including Amstel and Birra Moretti, is committed to making changes throughout its organisation for the sake of its retailers and consumers, Gillane adds. The business is “designing for sustainability” and putting it at the forefront of its innovation process.  

These initiatives must go much further than just packaging, he says. When it comes to developing new products, these are now designed with the “north star” of sustainability in mind.  

For example, in April 2021 Heineken launched Inch’s Cider, which the company developed “from scratch”. The product is designed not just to have recyclable packaging, but to be made with apples that have been grown less than 40 miles from the mill.  Marketers must prove ‘sustainable consumption’ is not an oxymoron

Across its full beer portfolio, Heineken’s target is that 100% of its barley and hops globally come from renewable, sustainable sources by 2030. By 2021, it was 65% of the way towards achieving that goal.  

As well as focusing on the impact of its product, Heineken is working to get to net zero in its advertising and media. Gillane says the company’s marketing team also thinks about “commercially driving” products that have a better impact on the environment in its work.  

Businesses across the beer and alcoholic drinks industry are working on many of the same challenges in regards to sustainability, whether that be on packaging, product or organisation, Gillane adds, but he wishes there was more collaboration.

“Often if I step back from the industry, I get a bit frustrated that everyone’s working on competing solutions. The idealist in me would like to see a little bit more sharing,” he says.  

When it comes to achieving sustainability goals, accountability within the organisation is a key pillar, he argues. Vital to that accountability is ensuring that sustainability pledges are measured and tracked.  

“You need to focus on the company and executive’s commitment to sustainability before you even think about communicating that to consumers,” Gillane says.  

“It’s about walking before you talk. Question yourself before others do.”