Marketing All Star: Ron Amram

Pursuit of excellence is (to tweak a buzz phrase) brewed into the DNA of Heineken, whose founder crafted the original super premium beer.

That rigor has been applied to advertising and overall marketing throughout the company’s 150-year history. Søren Hagh, executive director of global marketing, has explained that the company, which is still majority-owned by the Heineken family, believes that telling compelling stories is fundamental to convincing consumers of the value of paying for premium brands.

While “institutionalizing creativity” might seem an oxymoron, it works for Heineken. Today, Heineken subjects all campaign concepts to a rigorous ranking or “creative ladder” system, and requires its 1,500 marketing professionals in 70 countries across 250 international and regional brands to attend its internal sales and marketing training program. 

This respect for creativity’s power has resulted in a portfolio of award-winning and supremely effective campaigns, like Heinken’s current “The Legends” platform (featuring “men of the world” who are pushed to discover and overcome their limits) and Dos Equis’s “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

In a company that in 2015 became the second one ever to win two Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year awards — and declares that it strives to make every campaign achieve the kind of “talkability” that enables a brand to compete for attention not just with other beers, but the whole social media universe, including celebrities — exceptional media strategy is, of course, also de rigueur.

As senior media director for Heineken USA, Ron Amram leads all communications strategy and implementation across paid and earned media for the country’s leading upscale beer portfolio. That includes some of the category’s most social and followed brands, including flagship Heineken, Dos Equis, Newcastle and Tecate.

Amram has been immersed in media since launching his marketing career in the mid 90s. After serving as a media planner at Ammirati Puris Lintas and associate media director at Mediacom, he became senior partner, communications strategy director on the AT&T Wireless/Cingular business at Mediaedge:cia. There, he led media and communications strategy for all major campaigns and initiatives — including American Idol and NCAA March Madness sponsorships — for  major handset launches and Go Phone.

He was media director at Virgin Mobile, then led media strategy for the Sprint Prepaid Group, driving fast-growing brands such as Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Assurance Wireless into social and mobile media marketing, before joining Heineken in 2011. 

Heineken USA, which has a combined advertising budget of about $150 million, now invests a quarter of that in digital media — up from 20% in 2014 and 5% just three years ago. 

“Our media plans were outdated,” Amram told The Wall Street Journal in early 2015. “We were too reliant on TV and radio and out-of-home. Now, we are trying to be smarter, measure our impact and be as aligned with consumer behavior and interests as possible…For example, if you are spending any money on TV for a young brand like Desperados, you are wasting your time.”

In 2015, Amram moved the division to spending 10% of the budget on programmatic, and using TubeMogul software to buy big video audiences and negotiate with specific publishers. He said that using an independent DSP that buys across ad exchanges in real time, rather than using the tech solutions provided by the same players that are selling their media (like Google’s DoubleClick), provides a more comprehensive view of campaigns’ performance. 

Importantly, he said, it also helps ensure an objective assessment of inventory, which in turn should optimize efficiency and ROI. At a time when some estimate that as many as half of ad impressions may be bot-driven, rather than human views, demanding metrics objectivity has never been more crucial.

Amram has stressed that while it takes time to integrate a major media shift within a company as large as Heineken, the process is being facilitated by employing data and research to demonstrate measurable engagement and sales results.

The three-tier system in the U.S., under which only retailers can sell alcoholic beverages to consumers, limits collecting first-party customer data, but “in the new world, you can leverage programmatic and the ad [data] overall to be smarter about your media,” Amram has said. “Programmatic is a fantastic learning engine that allows you to apply data to see what’s working and feed that back into the creative process or target segmentation,” both for marketing and new product development.

But that’s just the start. Amram also partners with Nielsen’s Catalina Solutions and Oracle’s Datalogix, both of which enable the brands to anonymously match consumers’ media exposure to actual product purchases. 

Other technology and channels that he’s introduced into Heineken’s media buying and ad performance tracking processes, as recently noted by Forbes, include Ibotta (an app that tracks purchases while offering rebates to consumers, retailers and distributors); Blippar (which enables augmented-reality mobile content, including videos and games); and Gratafy (a mobile app that lets people buy, send and redeem gift cards and menu items at local restaurants).

Clearly, Amram believes in leveraging an array of tools to capture data and understand customers as deeply as possible. But he also stresses that brands must always provide a rewarding, worthwhile experience in return for consumers allowing them to get close to them—”so close,” he notes, “that you can actually interact with them while they’re shopping.”

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