The Isobar and Framestore creatives behind Heineken’s first virtual beer take us behind the scenes of crafting beer in the digital dimension
Virtual production is a hot topic, and one which garners extensive attention and questions. In collaboration with LBB, Unreal Engine is sponsoring the ‘Virtual Production’ channel, where we will be speaking with some of the industry’s most forward-thinking and innovative minds to explore some of the biggest questions surrounding this new way of working.
The latest instalment in this series pulls back the curtain on Heineken’s first ever virtual beer, a tongue-in-cheek play on food and drink brands being launched in the metaverse. As experts in creative experiences, global agency Isobar paired up with post-production studio Framestore to execute this first-of-its-kind product.
Brewed from “A-Pixels” the virtual beverage was brought to life by Heineken Silver’s virtual brewery, available exclusively in the immersive digital platform of Decentraland. The campaign included a live unveiling of the beer featuring cameos from Heineken global brand director, Bram Westenbrink and long-time brand ambassador, Thierry Henry.
Keen to learn more about the creative process of this digital feat, LBB gets the low down directly from the creative sources, speaking to Isobar executive creative director Zac DeBord as well as Framestore’s creative director Simon Wood and real-time producer James Yeo. Between them, Zac, Simon and James reveal what was required to pull off this unique metaverse experience, how it was crafted using Unreal Engine and how it felt to see the finished product beaming back at them from the iconic OOH spot in Piccadilly Circus.
LBB> What was the brief that Publicis Italy approached you with for the Heineken Silver campaign and what were your initial thoughts and reactions?
Zac> Heineken and their lead creative agency - Le Pub - had come up with a great campaign that was iconic and distinctively witty. They knew they wanted to make a move into the metaverse, but specifically how and where hadn’t been worked out yet.
Simon> They wanted to launch the world’s first virtual beer in the metaverse. To do this, viewers needed to believe they were seeing it appear in various video game worlds – no matter which platform they were watching it on - before it then evolved into a Heineken spot.
LBB> How early on were you brought into the process?
Zac> The global team at our parent company, Dentsu RedStar, led the communication strategy to deepen the brand’s connection and establish the new Silver launch with youth culture in a credible, fun and unique way. Dentsu Gaming helped in both establishing how to credibly behave in the space and navigating brand safety.
Isobar was then brought in to integrate the metaverse execution and leverage virtual assets. Metaverse is a broad concept, so we helped Heineken and their agency partners find the right metaverse gateway, exploring owned properties and platforms like Sandbox. It was ultimately decided that Decentraland was the best fit in terms of capabilities and audience match.
James> We were involved from the beginning of the production process when the creative idea started to be crafted.
Simon> I was establishing individual game worlds, characters and tone, to help inform our collective approach, and to ensure we could move quickly into production. After we finished motion capture for the short social film, we reviewed the art and created art paintovers, ideating the Piccadilly Circus experience with the team. Later I also directed the bespoke mocap sequence.
LBB> You were tasked with producing and implementing the Piccadilly Circus OOH billboard, what was the concept behind this?
James> This part of the campaign went live after the virtual release of the beer, as it was becoming available IRL. This was reflected in the creative: the virtual beer and character quite literally broke the 4th wall to showcase that the actual product had been launched.
Simon> The amazing deep perspective screens of Piccadilly were the natural platform for this transition from virtual into the real world.
Zac> We were tasked with creating an engaging space with activities for guests to explore on their own or as social groups, bringing thousands of people together at the same time on launch day, with three separate live press events announcing the launch of their new virtual beer.
LBB> Can you tell us about the use of Unreal Engine and Marketplace assets that you used to help build the bulk of the campaign and content, including the billboard and three different gaming environments?
Simon> From the get-go, we decided on a real-time workflow, it was the obvious choice to create a game world aesthetic.
Using Unreal's Marketplace allowed us to browse and review characters and worlds all in one place, enabling us to quickly select and previz quality assets before heading into production. It simply sped up our collaborative pre-production with the clients
As the characters from each world would appear in the Piccadilly Circus OOH billboard and other DOOH screens, we knew the quality and fidelity of the assets, along with our rigging and animations would work for the oversized experiences.
Zac> Decentraland is built on its own version of Unity vs Unreal that needs to run through the web. We used Marketplace assets as a starting point for some of the non-player characters, but everything else we concepted, designed, 3D modelled, textured and animated to ensure a completely unique look and feel for everything in the space.
LBB> Did you create any of the content for the Decentraland activation?
James> We created onscreen content that was used within Decentraland for the launch. In particular the glossy, tech style product film showcasing the virtual Heineken can in all its glory.
LBB> What was your vision for the overall feel and look of the campaign?
Zac> We worked closely with Heineken’s head of design to build off of common themes used in real-life spaces. We wanted to both honour and build upon what existed, but we weren’t constrained by reality, so we were able to lean into a more futuristic style with holograms, floating objects and interactions which are only possible in virtual reality.
Simon> We wanted to create light-hearted, comedic spots in different settings, which would all come together to create a unified campaign. We wanted to grab people's attention immediately with something familiar, then immediately jolt them with the tongue-in-cheek campaign. It was great that Heineken were brave enough to poke fun at themselves.
LBB> How complex of a project was it? How did it go from concept to finished ad? And how long did it take to complete?
Zac> You’d think it would take a lot of time. You’d hope to get a lot of time to work on it, but we started in January and had to have it done in mid-March. We were able to work fast and really embody Isobar’s “radical collaboration” core value. We had every team of stakeholders and partners working directly with us in a shared Miro document that let dozens of people work virtually together at the same time.
This document evolved over the course of the project, starting as a way to kick off and collaborate in a workshop, and eventually becoming a place for clients to look over the latest concept sketches; from the building design to every character and object we needed, to providing feedback and approvals throughout the project.
James> From start to finish we worked on this project for two months. Once we locked the creative, we began work and the client was loving it so much the deliverables list grew and grew!
LBB> Heineken Silver reaches out to a Gen-Z market. How did you craft the work to appeal to this audience and what did you need to take into consideration?
James> As a team we’re all experienced gamers, so we knew exactly what we’d need to achieve aesthetically on this campaign. We worked closely with Publicis Italy to ensure we kept the Gen-Z market front of mind. Working in real-time allowed us to make quick and subtle amendments on the spot.
Zac> Audience always needs to drive messaging. Especially when you’re talking to Gen-Z and especially when you’re meeting them for the first time in a medium. There were all kinds of playful interactions throughout the space, we even had an Easter egg hidden in a brew tank, for curious guests to stumble upon. The virtual assets we created were used in all forms of media to make the campaign feel cohesive, carrying a consistent ironic tone throughout all media.
LBB> What were some of the challenges you each encountered during the making of this campaign and how did you solve them?
Zac> Working with a global corporation and all of their key partner agencies comes with a lot of logistics but we approached the process with a problem solving mentality. Heineken and the collaborating partners had never done this before, so we were able to bring some education through the process as an agency familiar with innovating in new spaces.
By the same token, there was a team of magnificent partners that rose to the challenge; Le Pub, Edelman, Boomerang and Billion Dollar Boy can’t be praised enough. We also can’t say enough great things about every single person we worked with at Heineken.
Simon> We didn’t really have any complex challenges. The clients were happy, our amazing advertising and real-time teams came together again and thankfully our tools and pipelines allowed us to iterate the creative quickly.
LBB> What were your personal favourite moments during this project? What are you most proud of?
Simon> When the teams began to craft cameras and block out the virtual worlds, it took me back to my old game development days. It’s always fun to use Mocap and direct actors and performers, but the highlight had to be watching the shocked reactions of tourists in Piccadilly Circus.
Zac> One of our 3D artists hid an Easter egg in the experience, and on launch day, a streamer from Spain with several million followers went live in the experience and found the Easter egg. Totally unprompted. Within 20 minutes of finding the space, dozens of people were having a private party inside a secret brew tank.
LBB> The overarching Heineken Silver campaign is infused with tongue-in-cheek humour and self awareness. What are your personal thoughts on a beer brand taking this stance and using the metaverse in this way?
Simon> It was funny and brave, and Heineken was applauded for it. It's early days for the metaverse, but there are established places in the virtual world, and I think brands need to consider what their unique experiences would be for these communities, so that they can create memorable and social moments.
Zac> Sophisticated wit, humour and irony are core to the Heineken brand, it’s a unique and delicate balance. Every brand will come with their own tone of voice and objectives when it comes to what they’re looking to achieve in the metaverse. I don’t think this is the right approach for all beer and brands, but it’s about understanding what a brand really stands for and finding the best way to turn vision into virtual experiences that bring value to consumers.
LBB> Did you personally get to go and view the Piccadilly Circus billboard? What was your reaction when you saw it on the big screen?
James> Almost the whole team saw it live together – it was great to see every artist's reaction.
Zac> This project was a virtual parallel of a real-life product launch and the feedback has been extremely positive. We were able to invite people into a unique virtual space, let them explore and have fun together in ways not possible in real life. Seeing people laugh as they were pulled into an ironic narrative instantly showed that they “got it”.