Heineken’s Bram Westenbrink and Le Pub’s Mihnea Gheorghiu and Eleni Charakleia chat to Laura Swinton about bin bag-wielding stylistas, the #SocialiseResponsibly platform and a cheeky Champion’s League post
The pandemic year has seen many brands ossify with overly-sombre, hand-wringing faux gravitas. Surprisingly, though, it’s seen Heineken rediscover its sense of humour. That’s not to say that it’s a wacky class clown of a brand – no, it’s the wry Sean Connery arched eyebrow, Roger Moore quip and the Pierce Brosnan smooth moves of early 2010s classics like The Entrance and The Date. But, perhaps now, there’s a deeper sense of emotion and empathy. Most people have had a tough time and we want to hang out and crack a beer with the people who matter – and Heineken gets it.
We saw it over the festive period with Heineken’s Christmas campaign that poked fond fun at the idiosyncrasies of spending the holidays with family. It was a campaign that understood that, whether locked down or able to travel, Covid-19 had seen people reprioritising their loved ones. And this week, as the Northern Hemisphere tiptoes towards summer and Europe and North America achieve hope-inducing vaccination rates, they’ve done it again. We’ll Meet Again sees a neighbourhood of isolated lock-ins dress up in their peacock-iest finery as they create excuses to socialise responsibly, from taking the bins out to walking the dog. It’s glam, but it’s also pretty funny and relatable.
Bram Westenbrink, is senior director for global brand at Heineken Brand, and he says that the campaign started off life as a brief to create an optimistic message. “The brief for this campaign was to develop a story that provides a message of hope for the future that better times are coming. We also wanted to celebrate the resilience of our consumers and all the heroes who have kept the spirit of nightlife alive, within the constraints of lockdowns,” he says.
But what was particularly challenging was to create a hopeful message that would resonate globally – a tough ask given the different situations countries around the world find themselves int. What might be funny in the UK, where adults are huddling determinedly in parks and beer gardens could potentially grate somewhere with harsher restrictions. So, the campaign needed a universal insight that would transcend particularities. “Restrictions are constantly shifting in markets around the world, but what is evident is that socialising with friends and family is important in every culture and the lockdown has made us all appreciate this. The global restrictions have brought out the resilience and imagination of people all around the world to keep the spirit socialising alive, just in a different way.”
Eleni Charakleia is GM at agency Le Pub and client service director for the Heineken account and she agrees that the key was to understanding underlying human needs. “There are some common behaviours and trends across markets. Cultural sensitivities and also Covid context and restrictions might change, but the basic human need of getting together and enjoying a drink with friends or even strangers is indeed universal,” she says.
So, if anything, the pandemic Heineken’s comedic focus has shifted from escapism to a more observational style – albeit with a side helping of escapist glamour. “Our aim is to tell stories that are relevant and resonate with people around the world in a witty way that make consumers smile. We always view stories with a unique insight and a fresh perspective which gives us our distinctive Heineken tone of voice,” says Bram Westenbrink global head Heineken Brand.
The humour and wink is important for the category that the brand sits in – but also the current saturated social landscape means that leveraging that comedic sensibility is an incredibly useful way of standing out.
“Well, first of all, it’s still beer. It’s lifestyle. It’s good times. But at the same time, we’re fighting for the much-treasured people’s attention the same as every other brand or meme or TikTok video out there. You need humour. You need emotion. You need to talk about something that everyone’s aware of, but don’t see coming. Otherwise, why even bother?” says Mihnea Gheorghiu global ECD at Le Pub. “However, Heineken humour is never LOL. We’re not coming up with jokes. The humour first comes from the insight and then very subtly from the execution. We just look at the way things are and then put a twist on that.”
That understated wit is embodied in the Francois Rousselet-directed We’ll Meet Again ad (and if you’re interested, the styling executed to perfection by Miguel Cervera).
The spot itself was a complex night shoot, explains Mihnea. After a year of doing Covid productions, the team has become used to working within the restrictions with the crew. Le Pub also has a tight relationship with Francois the director, as well as Jules de Chateleux and prod co Division Paris, with whom they’ve shot four Diesel campaigns, so that also helped. It was a tight turnaround – shooting stopped on a Sunday and the client presentation was exactly one week later on Easter Sunday. But even a well-oiled pandemic-era production machine has room for a little serendipity.
“There was one thing however, that gave a nice little magical touch,” says Mihnea. “It happened right at the very end, when we were shooting the last scene with the girl crossing the street. It was maybe 7am and exactly when we were shooting the wide, ALL the streetlights in Barcelona suddenly turned off – a new day was starting. I dropped my sandwich. There was no way anyone could’ve planned for that to happen.”
The ad’s track also came about via the magic of chance – We’ll Meet Again is a famous WW2 song from British songstress Vera Lynn. During post-production, Mihnea found himself sitting up at 4am watching Futurama, and one episode ended with a Kate Smith cover of the song. It was a eureka moment and Mihnea immediately started researching the track, uncovering its original context. Francois and Jules loved it, and the team at Sizzer jumped in to turn around a gorgeous re-recording. “And here we are!” laughs Mihnea. “Insomnia and Futurama FTW.”
While the binbag-wielding stylistas of the new global campaign are a great illustration of the lightness and humour of the brand, so too is their cheeky, responsive post to the European Super League debacle. As sponsors of the UEFA Champions League, Heineken posted ‘Don’t drink and start a league’, a dig at the catastrophic breakaway soccer competition. But it was a joke so insouciant and effortless that it was classy rather than nasty.
Perhaps more than humour, one of the most notable aspects of Heineken’s marketing over the past year is that… they’ve been marketing. As the pandemic started to hit in early 2020, some major brands like Coca-Cola spooked and slammed on the brakes immediately. Heineken, however, has been remarkably present. In April 2020 it launched a #SocialiseResponsibly creative platform, which has enabled the brand to engage with the realities of lockdown life without getting bogged down in grimness.
“We think that it is important for Heineken to provide a message of support and hope for the future. The campaign taps into the collective feeling of the moment, showing real life experiences that almost everyone can relate to, celebrating resilience and imagination,” says Bram. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we launched our #SocialiseResponsibly platform which has been a series of creatives showing support for consumers. This campaign is part of that platform, and it has been incredibly important to us, because it encourages our consumers to act responsibly, and it also supports our on-trade partners through a number of global and local initiatives.”
All of that requires an agency that really gets how the brand’s voice works. Le Pub is a bespoke agency created for Heineken by Publicis Groupe. While Publicis has worked with Heineken for years, Le Pub was announced in November 2020 in order to combine creativity, data and brand experience.
“Le Pub has been producing some fantastic results already,” says Bram at Heineken. “The approach in which we work together is innovative and agile. This campaign was developed by Le Pub remotely across Europe and the quality of the idea and its execution shows that we are capable of delivering inspiring communications even under tough restrictions.”
Eleni says the closeness of the relationship between agency and brand has allowed the team to develop that understanding of and confidence with the tone of voice. “We have worked with Heineken for many years, and we take immense pride in having them as our founding client. We have a very open, transparent relationship, that is not transactional but instead a true partnership. We have deep love for the DNA and history of the brand and at the same time a joined ambition about its future.”
And that closeness, says Bram, means that there’s a great deal of openness within the marketing team at Heineken to ideas. “The fact we can make ‘glam folk with bin bags’ juxtaposition look authentic in our campaigns is what makes our fresh perspective uniquely Heineken. We’ve taken the everyday and made it witty and glamourous in a way that resonates with people. The team are always open to refreshing, witty ideas like this, and the fact we had real proof points of people showing their resilience in these unique ways made the idea even stronger.”
The integration of creative and data and experience has also allowed the team to work in a holistic way. Where much of the industry sees a divide between long term brand building work and the sales-activating short term, targeted or social projects – but according to Eleni, the Le Pub team doesn’t think or work like that. “We like building for ecosystems and experiences, rather than dividing between big bold brand work and short term. Even our more targeted or tactical work, needs to feed into the broader brand experience and provide a fresh POV on the moment of consumption, category, or even social context more broadly. It’s not one or the other, it’s how the two complement each other in a more sophisticated consumer journey,” she says.
It's difficult to predict exactly how this summer will play out – at the moment we’re poised between hope and uncertainty. That’s difficult to plan for, but Bram says there’s still plenty to look forward to.
“We are hopeful for the year ahead and especially this summer, as we have UEFA EURO 2020 taking place from June! Heineken is a global sponsor of this tournament, so we are looking-forward to this event as well as the rest of our sponsorship activities such as Formula One and Formula E which will hopefully see a return of fans to enjoy the excitement,” he says. “We will also be maintaining our Socialise Responsibly message throughout the summer, as we help celebrate the excitement people will feel when they can finally share a Heineken together, be it in a park, back-gardens or in bars.”