By Tunde Oso

HEINEKEN, a centenarian premium lager beer brand on the stable of Nigerian Breweries Ltd continues to endear itself to its teeming consumers of discerning beer drinkers, increasing in brand equity while recording huge profits for its investors.

In an exclusive media chat with select journalists, Sampson Oloche, Head – Premium, Sessionable, Portfolio, Nigerian Breweries  Plc, said the secret behind the phenomenal growth of the brand Heineken lies with its unique brand building strategies and unbeatable records of innovative ideation. He spoke on several other issues as well. Excerpts:

As a centenarian brand with presence in over 192 countries of the world, how has the brand sustained its market relevance and equity in the Nigerian lager beer market?

Basically, I think Heineken sets itself a very high standard and so it starts right from the product level. The ingredients for beer, we use the highest quality ingredients across board and the process is very standardized. It is set up from the centre. So, it is controlled centrally from Amsterdam. The quality standard is really very high.

For a brewery to qualify to brew Heineken anywhere in the world, it has to go through a very rigorous process. We have eight breweries in Nigeria and Heineken is produced not in everyone. That is just to give you an example. That means that the quality expected to produce Heineken is high. That is what has been set up as a standard globally. Every brew of Heineken has to be approved in Amsterdam before it goes out to the market. There are lots of quality checks and that’s why even if the demand for Heineken is very high, we cannot produce it too much.

We can’t rush the process. It has to go through a certain number of days; the ingredients have to be of certain quality and the brewery that produces it has to be of a certain quality and also the brewers have to be master brewers. So, it is the highest-level beer you can make; that’s what Heineken is. If that standard is set globally and the market complies with it, then the result is what you’re seeing. You can hardly have Heineken having any quality complaint anywhere all over the world. That has been the major success factor. It is the first child of the company and it is treated as such.

Heineken has continued to evolve overtime with new innovations, how will you describe the market response to Heineken’s 33cl sleek and impact on the brand equity?

It is not a regular pack type for beer in Nigeria because if you have noticed, energy drinks are known for sleek cans most times; and then recently soft drinks. As such, it is not what we will call the regular pack type for beer; and so going into it, we were very sceptical. But then, I think what we call a winning design led to something I will call a winning proposition.

The response for it has been very positive. It is now contributing a significant portion of the Heineken volume already. I will be honest to say that we were pleasantly surprised that it worked out the way it is working out currently and it has been such a big discovery for us; and we intend to keep it that way. Basically speaking, in Nigeria, beer consumers like large volume hence the 33cl; you will think it’s small but not for a premium brand like Heineken. The design of the can and the look of it the consumers have accepted and will want to be seen with it. It has been a prominent feature at parties and events; and so it has been great.

A prominent feature on the Heineken’s sleek can is the UEFA Champions League trophy. Would you describe this as a strategic way to appeal to your sports fans alone or part of the partnership deal?

The trophy was used last year and I think we plan to bring it back again. We have been sponsoring the Champions League for many years and I think it is just to bring that association to the consumers at first hand level. That is why we put the branding on it. It is not a permanent fixture; so we put it there for a month at the peak of a Champions League season; and they will take it out again.

So, basically it is a way of driving our association with the platform because, of course, if you know Nigeria very well, football, generally speaking, is one of the biggest passion points for our consumers and the Champions League is the highest level of football that we can have on an annual basis. Of course, you have the World Cup that comes once in four years. But on the yearly basis, this is the highest level of football and it has delivered a lot for the Heineken brand and we are proud to be associated with the platform. In the advert you see on outdoor, on billboards, TV, digital, radio, this is also a way of driving that partnership. It is a way of driving the association with the Champions League.

The “Never Watching Alone” campaign accompanied the launch of the new sleek can; would you say that your strategic intent to drive a connective and communal message through celebrities still resonates?

The ‘Never Watching Alone’ campaign was the global campaign for the year (2021). In fact, it is running for the second year now and what you saw with celebrities in Nigeria was a local tour spring where we got some celebrities to drive the message home, to also make it resonate more with the consumers. The sleek can, of course, was featured in there but that was not the primary purpose. The ‘Never Watching Alone’ campaign is a global campaign for UEFA Champions League that we used in 2020 and 2021. It is a COVID era campaign because you are talking about people not being able to go out; they sat at home to watch football and we are telling you that with Heineken, you are not watching alone because you are connected to millions of fans all over the world; and the sleek can is a very relevant pack type on that occasion.

What’s the difference between “Better Together” and “Never Watching Alone” campaigns?

The ‘Better together’ is promoting the association of football, Champions League and Heineken. That was a pre-COVID campaign. That is to say we are better when we are together. The ‘Never Watching Alone’ is related to that because we say you are better together and now you cannot come together. We are saying even though you are alone, you are watching not alone. So, it is like a continuation of that campaign to say although we are better together but now we cannot be together, we are still not alone.

With changing consumer behaviour exacerbated by the global pandemic, Is the sleek can achieving its set goal of creating new associations with football and develop among sport enthusiasts?

Yes, it is exceeding all expectations. If you noticed, the regular Heineken is in a 60cl bottle. It is drunk mostly on premise and so here you have a pack type that people can buy and travel with; take to the beach; have parties without bothering about deposits; and with the increase in food consumption due to COVID and people staying more at home, the pack type just came at the right point in time.

Who were you target audience for “When You Drive Never Drink” campaign, which focuses on the root causes of drink driving?

The statistics in Nigeria, I am not so sure of it, but I don’t think Nigerians have a problem like everybody is crying that drink driving is causing anything; but it is just us being a responsible corporate citizen to encourage people because at the end of the day, we sell a product that can get you drunk if you drink it too much and it exposes you to danger. You might think it is simple and everyone knows this, it is good to remind people.

So, that basically is a reminder to all beer drinkers that we love you to drink our beer, it is a fantastic beer but keep it to a limit and when you drink, don’t risk people’s lives by going into a car to drive because driving, if you look at the global survey, is something that is a problem when people drink and they drive. As such, that campaign is targeting everybody that drinks and has the opportunity or option of driving. We portray that in different commercials to let people know that when you drink, it is either you get a designated driver who does not drink or you find alternative way to go home and to keep people safe.

As a company that advocates for responsible drinking, how much of Heineken’s media spend goes into promoting responsible drinking across all operating companies?

We have a global mandate and I don’t think it is a secret that it is 10% of our media. So, one out of every N10 spent in media has to go into this campaign. There is no regulatory or government regulation on this. This is just us, being a corporate citizen, to say we take 10% spend of our media on promoting this, then we are doing a good job educating people and reminding them that they should stay safe.

Heineken has been a long-standing official sponsor of the UEFA Champions League for over 27 years. How has this partnership enhanced your brand equity?

I think the length of sponsorship already tells you everything. If you are married to someone for twenty-seven years, no matter what happens after that, that person is part of your life. So, it is a partnership like a marriage. Twenty-seven years are a very long time and that time already indicates that we are both happy. Don’t forget that a platform owner can also be unhappy with the sponsor. A sponsor brings something to the table; so, it is a mutually beneficial relationship where they benefit from you and you benefit from them as well. Of course, there is money to be exchanged on one side but there is also a platform to be exploited on the other hand. This, I think, we have done quite well. We have brought the experience to billions of consumers across the world and we have taken a lot of people to experience it first hand as well. Thus, football being like the number one passion point of Nigerians ties easily with this platform and as long as it keeps delivering, we will continue to do it.

Last year, the campaign you talked about was tested in Nigeria and other countries and Nigeria got the highest score globally in terms of connecting with the message and the passion portrayed in the commercial and we are very happy with that. So, the UEFA Champions League is a very relevant platform for the Heineken brand and it is really doing well in Nigeria.

Heineken as the biggest international premium beer brand in the world has partnered with sporting events like UCL, EURO, Champions Tour 2019 etc, would you say Heineken is the closest companion of football fans?

There is football on different levels but we are talking about the best of football. So, if you say you are the best of beers, of course you are bringing the best of football experience to the consumers. That is the association we are driving and, of course, not to belittle the other football leagues or levels of football; but you can see the same association with the Euros. That is like the pinnacle, the highest level and it just goes with the positioning of Heineken as the most premium international beer associated with the most premium and best of football. So, those platforms are used to solidify our position and project what we stand for as a brand.

During Heineken’s tour of 2019, an impressive number of your Nigerian consumers were thrilled in a momentous football match by Carles Puyol Saforcada, a UEFA Champions League legend and Heineken Ambassador. Could you elaborate on the tour and its impact on Heineken market leadership in Nigeria?

As the sponsor of the platform of the game that is a European platform, at the end of the day, people have access to it from digital and TV. Bringing the trophy to Nigeria makes it more tangible. This is the same trophy that it is going to be presented to the winners. It is we bringing credibility to Nigerians and saying, look, this is the biggest prize in club football and you are able to come and touch it.

The passion it brings out of our consumers is immense both target audience and non-target audience just football lovers. If you look at those activations and the way people go wild just looking at the trophy. I remember the first time I touched that trophy, I felt like oh these people that you watch on television, this is the same trophy they have been touching. That gives you a different kind of feeling. It is great and we are planning to repeat it again, if we can, this year. It is in the plan; but now we need to deal with the whole COVID restrictions. Can the trophy travel, can the UEFA people come, can we get a legend to come with the trophy, all that conversations are going on now, and we will keep you posted.

It is inarguable that your marketing strategy has been deliberate and focus on making Heineken the most contemporary beer brand in its category. Could you shed more light on Heineken’s product placement with James Bond movies?

I think James Bond is also an association we have been making before. If you look at James Bond, the whole franchise, the hero, the very international man of the world which ties with our formal positioning as ‘Be the man of the world’ which is what we used to say. It is also another partnership that works. If you look at the kind of things Heineken does, they are things we want you to see only behind Heineken. So, we look for things that are not regular and not easy to get. They are also not cheap; but they are things that will deliver for you because no other brand can copy it. You can’t copy a James Bond franchise. We all grew up watching James Bond. So, from young to old, everybody associates with the platform. Everybody sees in themselves a hero even though they don’t act it; but it is somewhere hidden in you and that association is just fantastic.

What informed the strategic move of taking the UEFA Champions league tour beyond Lagos to Uyo?

At the end of the day you can do the activation anywhere you can take people to. We have a good partnership with the state and they have a fantastic stadium, the trophy is probably here in just a few days. We thought that for the first time let us see if we can take it out. It was an experiment we did and it seemed to have worked. We are looking at more of such outreach activations beyond Lagos to have future editions as well.

The unforgettable match was played by Puyol and his team representing Heineken and Nigerian football legend, Jay Jay Okocha and his team, representing Shine Shine Bobo (STAR). Did it not bother your marketing team that such a tournament could create intra-competition among lager beer consumers, between two lager brands from your stable?

At the end of the day if we had done our job properly then, the target audience of the two brands are never the same. If two brands are targeting the same people, generally speaking, then we have not done our job. You see a lot of brands in the portfolio, but the idea is, each brand is reaching out to more people, although they are overlapped but that should be minimal. Again, the idea is that we are driving overall penetration for our entire portfolio, so the target audience for STAR is not necessarily the audience for Heineken, so to say. If you understand it, that will mean that we have done our job like I hope we have done.

If you put them together, that should not be a problem; we are talking to two different people. If Heineken was just making the trophy accessible to more people, then, STAR was also activating football and of course, any football fan respects the UEFA trophy; the same thing with the World Cup. Everybody respects the World Cup even if you are not a football fan, especially women that are not into football, they can watch the world cup because their country is involved. It is a different thing entirely because it comes once in four years; it is not a weekly thing that people do.

To the football fans, there is no overlap at all. There is no competition because there are different people or different audiences that each is targeting. It is more of psychographics. But at the end of the day, these are not things that we put in the face of the consumer. Think about it, if you look at a Heineken ad, the people you see in that ad, if you want to shoot that ad for Goldberg, there won’t be sync, the music we use, if you look at it, that is what we are trying to do. It is not a hard science, but it is setting motivation we tap into for our brand and the job we do in marketing is to make sure those motivations are different enough but also validated.

We have what is called demand spaces where different people want different things. You might want a beer that connects you to your village people, I might want a beer that makes me look like I have money; some people don’t care about that, some care about both but not at the same time.

Maybe this afternoon when I was sitting there, I wanted to let everybody know that I am a chief from the West, I might put a Goldberg in front of me but in another period I am not feeling like that, maybe I dressed like this to attract some of the girls that I have money, I may take something else. You can see that they may have some overlaps but the occasions you have them may differ; you can also see that motivation can differ from one consumer to the other.

Would you say that the marketing goal for that was successfully achieved?

Yes, very successfully achieved. If you look at all the numbers and all the metrics, we used to do things like post-event activation, it was fantastic and that was the first time the brand hit its one million hectoliter volume. It got to a very high volume and that year was a breakthrough year for Heineken.

With the huge success of the 2019 tour, should Heineken loyal Nigerian consumers expect more of such a tour in the near future?

Yes; and that is why we are trying to bring it back this year. In 2021, we rested. Think about it, the guys that were 15 years (in 2019) will be 18 this year. Imagine that group of people who could not come in last time, three years is a long time enough for people to desire to come back again and have the same people there, so yes, we intend to do it again, and again and again, because it is different consumers every time; and we will definitely go to different cities.

Imagine us in Enugu with the trophy; it is something that probably never happened there before; so if we look at the passion that comes out of people, the excitement that it brings, it is priceless.

The Fashion and Design Week is a way of broadening the reach of the Heineken brand because, if you look at a lot of our sponsorships, like Formula One, Euro, Bonds, movies are a lot more masculine than feminine. Again, fashion in Nigeria is a platform that attracts a broad audience but it indexes a lot in females and also very young people. If you add that to the football audience, you will see how we are trying to reach a broader set of consumers, first-hand through their passion- points; because, all we do  is ignite consumer passion, and anything that ignites their passions is something we are interested in. We are meeting the consumers at their passion points, the same way we are meeting a huge part of our consumers with football.

Fashion is also relevant because it is cool, trendy, young and it is something that Nigeria is really accelerating. There is also another side to it, which is our own way of contributing to the development of the art, because, if you look at what is happening there over 10 years; it is amazing, the kind of talents we have here in Nigeria and the platform has given opportunity to a lot of designers  to showcase themselves and give them the opportunity to be known, not just in Nigeria but even beyond our shores. There are two things we are doing there: we are reaching our consumers and we are also making a little bit of contribution to the art.

In terms of expansion, which other key markets have you extended the fashion programme to?

For us in Nigeria, in everything we do, we focus on Nigeria alone. There was a time, a few years ago, when they brought some finalists from East Africa here; there was a kind of partnership that was a kind of association. For us here, our target is the Nigerian market and any other market that takes up this platform is really doing it on their own.

But the fashion platform is a Nigerian initiative, because of how relevant it is to Nigerians. We look at how many fashion week shows we have in Nigeria and it is growing in quality to the amount of investment. It is something that we intend to continue with.

What more should Heineken loyalists expect as the brand continues in its quest to influence and define the global fashion landscape?

For fashion, we are just the sponsors of the platform and we have increased from one to two platforms, because, on the one hand, we have the platform that is very established, that gives established designers access to the runway to do all of these things, and on the other hand, we have another platform that gives aspiring designers platform to showcase themselves. It is almost like a talent hunt for fashion talents. That is also another thing. But going forward, for us,  it is just to keep the partnership going, because then, the platform just exists for people to know that if I work hard, then I can be on this platform and if I am on this platform, I can be known, and if I am known, I will become successful in that industry. If you go through that journey, you have to acknowledge that a brand that gives you that opportunity deserves some kind of kudos. That is where we keep it at this point.

Heineken recently bagged the prestigious MARKETING EDGE Premium Lager Beer Brand of the Decade award, an honour industry watchers judged as “well deserved”. How would you describe this eminent award?

It just tells you that the things you are doing are not only working but are recognized because Heineken has a lot of support internally. I won’t pretend as if there are brilliant things we do with the brand but it is also a focused brand. It is one of our most important brands and we treat it with that respect. We invest heavily in the brand; we like to think that we do the right things with the brand. We try to understand the consumers’ aspect as much as we can, we try to make the brand fit into their lifestyles and we try to keep the level of activation extremely very high. What gave us this award which we really appreciate is a combination of many things over the years and it is a testament to the fact that we are doing the right things and we will keep it like that.

Similarly, Heineken also won the African Brand Leadership Merit Award, Africa’s Best World Class Premium Quality Brand of the Decade. What does this esteemed award mean to your team in the Heineken brand?

When we say Heineken is the best beer in the world, we are not just saying it. It is not like some guy that is not very good looking to come and stand in your front and say I am good looking. If you say you are good looking, or fine, everybody should say yes, you are fine. We use these things in comms, because some people probably don’t know this: when we say a glass of Heineken is the best beer you can drink, it is not a marketing gimmick, it is a fact. You cannot produce a higher quality beer than Heineken. You can call it something else; there are levels to these things. I am sure there are shoes people wear, there are hair women wear, you all know the standards.

When you say this is the highest, when you say something is of the highest, there is nothing higher than this. In beer there is actually nothing higher than Heineken and that is why it is the world’s most international beer. I am not just saying it, it is in all of these countries. Look at Nigeria, you can see all these other beers, they will come along and do all those that they are doing, do football, but it is not the same thing. They don’t taste the same, the quality standard is not the same, the activations and platforms are not as authentic as ours.

It is just a recognition of what the founding fathers of this brand put in place. I am not taking the credit for it. If you take over the Heineken brand, it is almost like a Bible that you inherit that you have to follow. It is tested and trusted; and if they need to make changes, these are made after rigorous testing and in the coming few years in Nigeria, you are going to see a lot of product innovation from Heineken and these are also things that have taken a long time to put in the pipeline; and the outcome of it is to make sure that anything you put in Heineken must be successful, because this is one brand for which we cannot afford to have anything from the consumer to say this is not good enough.

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