The Medium Is The Bottle, A Green One: Why Heineken Dares To Be Different

You don’t get recognized as one of the world’s most creative brands overnight. Sometimes, it comes from years of hard work, foresight and determination -- and most of all, a willingness to take big risks in pursuit of breakthrough rewards. That was how beer marketer Heineken’s top marketing team explained their “thirst for creativity” during a Cannes seminar entitled that way.

“Great creativity starts with a decision,” Executive Director of Global Marketing
Soren Hagh explained to Lions Festival attendees this morning, adding: “Unless you demand creativity -- unless you demand greatness -- you’re probably not going to get it. At Heineken, the decision for creativity was made many years ago.”



The pioneer creative innovations embodied by the brand, he said, include the fact that it was the first beer brand to position itself for a premium marketplace, the first beer brand to truly go multinational, and the first to come in a green bottle.

That last item might not seem so radical in the context of today’s marketing landscape, but back in 1864 when Founder Gerard Adriaan Heineken decided to buck the brown bottle norm, it was a “relatively bold decision,” Hagh said. It also helped the brand differentiate itself from all its competition.

Fast-forward to a contemporary time of virtually infinite consumer choice and control and Hagh says creativity demands equally daring standards.

“Creativity is a the silver bullet in a very, very cluttered, consumer-driven world,” he said, explaining the premium Heineken has put on creativity in its marketing. It’s not just an esthetic, he said, but a bottom-line function.

“Great creativity is more efficient,” he said, noting that it generates measurable returns on its investment, which is the main reason Heineken keeps investing in it.

He then showed an example of what might seem like a pretty good creative execution -- a “beautifully crafted” ad for Heineken’s Strongbow Gold hard cider brand, saying he had “only one issue with it:

“It leaves the consumer utterly and completely confused about what it is we are trying to tell them.”

He described the ad as a “bit of a disaster,” noting that it leaves consumers bored or confused everywhere it’s shown.

His point: Great creativity has great costs associated with it, including failures due to trying new ideas.

He said there is an “element of serendipity in searching for greatness” in creativity, adding: “You’re not going to get great creativity every time. Every once in a while, you’re going to fail.”

While that insight should not be surprising to many in attendance at the Lions Festival, what was noteworthy was the solution Heineken came up with for improving its odds: a system that is part art and part science that Hagh described as the “Creative Program.”

And by that, he clearly didn’t mean program in the programmatic sense, because while it utilizes scientific principles and objective data, it relies on good human judgement, including a “Creative Council” that reviews, rates and buckets everything Heineken creates into a unique creative segmentation format called the “Creative Ladder.”

The ladder has 10 rungs ranging from its lowest -- a “1” that is so bad it will actually make consumers “dislike your brand” -- to a “10,” a campaign so inspiring it takes on a “legendary” status.

Hagh said the important thing about the Creative Ladder is that it standardized the language Heineken’s teams use for describing creativity in ways that everyone can understand in a cohesive way.

He said the “Holy Grail” of all of the company’s work is to achieve a “seven-plus,” meaning campaigns that score on the seventh rung of the latter or higher.

He then showed an example of a campaign for Newcastle Brown Ale that “got it right.” Interestingly, the campaign was one that poked fun at advertising campaigns, but flashing prototypical storyboards for over-the-top executions of an ad that was never actually made.

“See the mega huge football game ad that Newcastle Brown Ale would have made if we had a mega huge advertising budget,” the spot’s announcer intoned, urging viewers to “Watch it at”

That campaign, Hagh said, went viral, achieved all the brand’s goals and won a number of Cannes Lions in the process.

“That’s the creativity that sets the world alive,” he said. The spot ends with a frame of a guy -- ostensibly a viewer -- shedding a tear after viewing its awesomeness.

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