Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
Why Heineken’s Latest Launch Shows the Key to the Metaverse is Meta-Humour
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Heineken’s Bram Westenbrink and Publicis Worldwide’s Bruno Bertelli on championing real world connections and exploring virtual worlds with a sense of whimsy
The metaverse may be all about connecting people, but it’s also proving to be pretty divisive. An exciting glimpse into tomorrow or an over-hyped fad? A silly waste of time or a serious investment in the future? Within the marketing and advertising sphere, there are vocal proponents on each side and the rest of us are in a state of quantum flux. Let’s call it Schrödinger's opinion.

So what’s a brand to do? Plunge in, lest they find themselves left behind by their more adventurous and innovative competitors? Or hold back in case the whole venture turns out to be the new Betamax, leaving them looking uncool and credulous?

When it came to launching their new beer, ‘Heineken Silver’, Heineken realised that the key to getting the balance right was to include a healthy dose of humour. Together with their partners at Publicis Groupe and the bespoke agency Le Pub, they created a launch campaign that allowed the team to get hands-on with their own virtual world and embrace the pop-culture ripples of the current metaverse hype, while also retaining a relatable nugget of scepticism. After all, Heineken is an inherently sociable brand and, after two and a half years of covid-19, people are hungry for the analogue joy of IRL connections 

Heineken Silver was launched in a buzzing nightclub in metaverse space Decentraland - trailed as a beer brewed entirely from pixels. The meta launch saw global head Heineken band, Bram Westenbrink, take to the stage to wax lyrical about the new virtual beer, joined by a brewing expert who spoke about the complex process of turning pixels into beer. For good measure, they even had a celebrity guest appearance from a virtual Thierry Henry.

The assembled journalists and influencers may have been left nonplussed, but at the IRL launch event, the following week revealed all. Guests were invited to wear ‘real reality’ goggles, to hang out in a bar designed to mimic an 8-bit video game, before heading to the party space. All of this came in conjunction with an above the line campaign that poked fun at the fakery of social media. In the end, the team have managed to both reflect on the ways our lives are becoming more online while also raising a quizzical eyebrow.

To find out how they pulled it off, LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Bram Westenbrink, global head Heineken brand and Bruno Bertelli, Le Pub Amsterdam CEO, global CCO Publicis Worldwide, CCO Publicis Groupe Italy.

LBB> What sort of discussions were you having about the metaverse and our online lives early on both within the Heineken team and with your agencies? 

Bruno> The metaverse is becoming more and more popular, with brands choosing to launch and activate in the metaverse seemingly every day. We understand that the metaverse is a fun and sociable place, so we were keen to carve out a role for Heineken in this world. But we were aware that one thing that can’t be replicated in the metaverse is the experience and taste of an ice-cold beer.

LBB> From a product perspective, what is it about Heineken Silver that lends it to the themes and aesthetics of this hi-tech discussion? 

Bram> The product, Heineken Silver was created with more modern taste profiles in mind to appeal to the next generation of legal drinking age and the life they lead. That’s why we have launched the beer in a fun, interactive way in the metaverse. Taking the conversation to where this generation is.

LBB> And what led you to that humorous and tongue-in-cheek approach?

Bram> Heineken like to take a witty and humorous approach to things. As a brand, we represent authentic beer moments to be enjoyed with friends and we are intrinsically sociable and fun. The launch of Heineken Silver was about poking fun at ourselves, and the lack of an authentic role we can currently play in the metaverse, rather than a commentary on the digital world itself. While the endless possibilities of the metaverse are there for consumers to enjoy, one thing that has not been solved is how to enjoy an ice-cold beer virtually.

While our launch showcases the silliness of bringing a beer you can’t even taste to the metaverse, we wanted to design a world that was bold, fresh, and exciting, just like we see our product. 

Bruno> A key part of the campaign was challenging the ‘premium’ beer ads we often see that show a fake reality. We wanted the creative to highlight the importance of authentic, real-world connections over a beer that isn’t overly stylised or polished. We were very much inspired by the ‘Instagram vs. Reality’ movement on social media and wanted to show that the reality of quality beer moments is with friends. 

LBB> We've noticed that while more of our lives have moved online, thanks to the pandemic, there seems to be another dynamic that a lot of brands are overlooking - that a lot of people are yearning for a richer offline life. Why was this space - the push of technology and the pushback against it somewhere you wanted to explore? 

Bram> Right at the heart of our business is sociability – we believe now more than ever in the importance in taking the time to be with friends and loved ones – something that has been threatened by covid and compounded by the tech advances we have seen.

We felt making a light-hearted poke at the metaverse as a place where ultimately you can’t sit down and have a cold beer with friends was a subtle enough way of addressing the conversation.

LBB> And how important is it that brands understand that technological progress isn't this straightforward, universally embraced, linear thing but that people have complicated emotions around it?

Bram> Heineken has always championed real world connections, we used this launch in the metaverse to showcase that some things, including the enjoyment of an ice-cold beer, is better in the real world. With this launch for Heineken Silver, we wanted to make sure that we recognised the fact that there is not currently an authentic role for us to play within this space. 

With that being said, we know that socialising online has grown exponentially in recent years, and whilst the metaverse is a fantastic and sociable place with a lot of opportunities for some, there’s no beating sparking a real-world connection over a beer. 

LBB> Your solution was ingenious as you managed to maximise the novelty of the metaverse and play around in that space while also having a sense of humour and self-awareness about it all. What were some of the interesting insights you gained from building your own metaverse experience and how has it shaped your view on where that space is going?

Bruno> We saw that having a space in the metaverse allows us to reach people all over the world and give them the same experience, no matter where they are. Hosting a product launch in the metaverse allowed us to gain engagement from across Europe for the launch all at the same time. The joke we aimed to land was designed to create buzz before launching Heineken Silver – for real – soon after the event in Decentraland.

We know there are an incredible number of opportunities in the metaverse moving forward. We can see that metaverse is not only a sociable place, but it has many other future potentials that Heineken will continue to monitor and explore from our own unique POV. From the marketplace, driven by the growth of NFTs to the expansion of e-commerce within the metaverse, the future is looking exciting, and we want to be right there driving it forward.

LBB> And how did you go about getting that tone of voice just right?

Bruno> We designed the Heineken brewery in the metaverse to include aspects that were aligned with our tone of voice, for example, no-expense-spared catering that couldn’t actually be enjoyed, or a bar that doesn’t look like any bar you may have seen before. We had to give the metaverse the respect it deserves given the value it offers many people, but we wanted our space to be fun, engaging and completely bizarre to highlight the value of having a beer with friends in the real world. 

LBB> I went along to one of the Heineken activations/parties in London recently, where I got to experience the real-life pixelated bar (complete with real reality goggles) - why was it important to bring this metaverse inspired launch into the real world? 

Bram>The launch events in real life, or IRL as compared to URL, focused on blending the physical and virtual elements. We wanted consistency between the space and identity we created for the virtual brewery in Decentraland and the launch events across Europe. Many virtual elements were blended with the real world, including ‘phygital’ activities or performances that blurred the lines between the virtual and real world. 

We wanted to deliver the best of both worlds; engaging entertainment like in the metaverse but with ‘in person’ experiences and a beer you can actually drink!

LBB> The TVCs poke fun at the fakery of social media too - why was it important to broaden out beyond the metaverse to the fakery of our online lives more generally?

Bruno> The whole campaign was crafted to speak to the idea that real is better than fake, which was very much inspired by the ‘Instagram vs. Reality’ movement on social media.

The TVC was created to be provocative, flipping the narrative from ideal to real. Heineken teamed up with real content creators aiming to show that overly airbrushed advertising is a thing of the past, and authentic moments with friends are more meaningful. This was also to challenge some of the more traditional, premium advertising campaigns from beer and alcohol brands and engage with a new generation of drinkers.

LBB> It looks like experiential is back in full swing, which must be a massive relief for the Heineken team! What can we expect this summer? 

Bram> We want to continue the journey and propel Heineken Silver into culture with iconic music and youth culture hotspots: festivals. We are going to be injecting a bit of URL energy and excitement into the real-life magic of festivals. Blending the virtual and physical worlds, as we did during our real-life launch events across Europe, we will remind festival-goers that they can enjoy a refreshing Heineken Silver during an event that is all about real-life experiences.

Keep an eye out for a host of extra fresh activations with Heineken Silver as we head into the summer months.