Posted on | March 28, 2013
Written by | David Lincoln Ross
When a barkeep chirps, “How about a Heineken?” in response to a customer asking what’s on tap, or when a beer shopper has cause to pause at an eye-catching Dos Equis display, make no doubt that plenty of strategy and legwork preceded those moments of decision.
Execution at the granular level—where bartenders and servers suggest a brand or retailers are happy to install stacked-case displays—requires coordinated, ongoing teamwork at all three tiers. Brand vision is only the starting point. To move that vision down the chain, a supplier needs concrete promotional programs that not only generate excitement with distributors, but also make sense to a range of end-sellers, from independent merchants and bar owners to and chain buyers and restaurateurs. And it takes a team of field representatives to the regional heads who are seamlessly synched with Heineken USA’s senior managers headquartered in White Plains, NY.
In fact, it is this one-two punch of creativity and detailed follow-through that has driven Heineken USA to an impressive turnaround. Heineken Lager is back in black and its collective 2012 sales grew by more than 4.4% year over year, according to results announced by Senior VP of Sales Scott Blazek to great applause at the start of Heineken USA’s 2013 National Distributors Conference (NDC) held recently in Phoenix.
During the NDC opening evening reception, some 1,500 distributor partners visited each of the company’s brand’s dedicated hospitality area, sampling, among others: Newcastle Bombshell, one of its 2013 seasonal offerings; Indio, the edgy, urban newcomer to the portfolio; Dos Equis Ambar and Lager on draft; Tecate Light and Tecate displayed in bright red-and-silver cans; Strongbow Hard Cider on tap; and Amstel’s Wheat Bier line extension.
But the star, pun intended, of the evening’s reception was the debut of Heineken’s new Star Bottle, graced with complementary packaging. The new, sleeker bottle, adorned with two red stars now—one centered on the label as before, the newer one close to the top of the bottle-neck—drew delighted verdicts of approval from Heineken USA team members from Maine to Maui.
As Chris Natale, president of Ritchie & Page Distributing Company in Robinsville, NJ, sees it, an essential ingredient behind the brand’s renaissance is that “Heineken USA listens to our ideas.” Natale says he has experienced a refreshing degree of openness when dealing with the company. With inspired management further supported by strong, creative marketing and amplified by consistent in-field support, the two-way partnership between importer and distributor literally turbo-charged the flagship beer’s sales in 2012, while simultaneously energizing the rest of Heineken USA’s portfolio.
NO RESTING ON LAURELS
After welcoming Heineken USA’s distributor partners to the Phoenix convention center on the morning after the opening reception, Scott Blazek issued a call to action: Accelerate! While congratulating the upbeat crowd on last year’s achievements, Blazek went on to stress that it will be essential to build on the momentum of 2012.
Blazek proudly acknowledged the multiple awards for the importer’s advertising campaigns; Heineken’s multi-platform media tie-in with the James Bond movie Skyfall; double-digit sales surges for its Mexican brands; the strong growth of Newcastle Brown Ale and its popular seasonal brews; the 2012 launch of Indio; and, last but not least, the vibrant ascent of its Strongbow Hard Cider, the number-one imported hard cider in the world.
But that was last year. Seizing the moment, Blazek declared: “2013 is year of pivotal opportunity, especially with the national rollout of the new Heineken Star Bottle, which is a once in a lifetime chance to really talk about the brand.”
Next up to the NDC stage, Dolf van den Brink, Heineken USA president and CEO since 2009, observed that the current marketplace is tougher than ever. Wine and spirits marketers continue to put pressure and take share from malt beverages, and imported beers continue to be squeezed on one side by crafts and on the other by new entries from re-energized domestic brewers. He emphasized the need to communicate the “import opportunity story” more successfully in 2013.
In van den Brink’s diplomatic but firm appraisal, the nation’s retailers, restaurateurs and bar and tavern owners all need a bit of reminding that imported beers account for a vibrant, growing and highly profitable segment of the U.S. beer market. Notwithstanding all the attention paid to the latest local artisanal brew, imports are an almost overlooked category by some merchants. Brands like Heineken, Amstel Light, Dos Equis and Tecate definitely rotate faster than crafts; indeed, van den Brink argued that imported beers, when compared to crafts, ultimately account for even higher margins and a larger share of profits for re-sellers.
Looking forward, he outlined three key challenges for Heineken USA brands: a numbing sameness to most beer advertising; the proliferation of craft beers; and diminished trade execution in the imported beer segment.
TO ACCELERATE, INNOVATE!
That said, for Heineken USA, the essential fuel to accelerate is innovation. Chief Marketing Officer Lesya Lysyj explained that innovation is not simply about products; it really involves creating impactful marketing plans, pursuing enhanced communications with both trade and consumer media, and imagining new ways to effectively engage consumers who have an affinity with one or more Heineken brand.
To break through the advertising clutter in virtually any medium, Lysyj sees her team’s primary work as a task to figure out every opportunity where the company should “zig, while everyone else zags.” In delivering a brand-by-brand rundown of HUSA’s approach to those three challenges, Lysyj described a wide array of initiatives—spanning TV, radio, print, digital, outdoor and other media.
ALL THINGS DIGITAL
One of the most startling insights Lysyj shared with distributor partners was the forecast that by 2020, only 10% of viewers will be accessing television broadcasts via conventional cable; the balance will be via digital devices. In turn, Lysyj explained how Heineken USA has been investing aggressively in social media outreach, smart phone applications and digital advertising. She outlined 2013 plans for strong marketing investments for the company’s three priority brands—Heineken, Dos Equis and Strongbow Hard Cider—via electronic and print media, with “ads that stand out!”
Heineken’s 2013 television ads will add the next chapters to the successful Heineken Legends campaign, in an adventurous series of 30-, 60- and 90-second commercials, further supported via on- and off-premise executions. Lysyj and her Heineken USA colleagues also discussed separate and well-funded campaign plans for Heineken Light and Amstel Light.
Matt Kahn, VP of Heineken USA portfolio brands, reported that the Dos Equis brand grew 20% in 2012, which generated a huge applause. Kahn said even greater marketing investments are planned for 2013—including more TV support than ever before and new event-related appearances by “The Most Interesting Man In The World”—all to “accelerate” the brand’s torrid growth.
Regarding Strongbow Hard Cider, Lysyj vowed that Heineken USA would ramp up its account penetration efforts in both on- and off-premise arenas. Adding the right consumer element to this momentous effort, Lysyj promised record levels of sampling opportunities for consumers via Stongbow-themed events at cooperating accounts. And to get the word out, thanks to Heineken’s leading edge social media capabilities (Heineken brand has more Facebook followers than any other beer brand), there was great optimism that by working together with its distributor partners, Heineken USA could make hard cider sales history in 2013 with Strongbow.
Wrapping up, Scott Blazek returned to the stage to emphasize Heineken USA’s longstanding commitment to “flawless execution” in the field. He explained that today Heineken USA is benefiting as never before because the managers at the company’s headquarters and distributor partners are all on one page in terms of marketing, advertising, merchandising and account-by-account delivery—no out-of-stocks allowed! Empowered by its 4% share of the U.S. beer market, Blazek promised that Heineken USA would maintain and enhance its ability, as he thundered to a close, “to Align, to Adapt, and to be the Thought Leader” in the 2013 U.S. beer business.