Transforming digital: value creation with a 140 year-old brand

Jeremy Brook, Heineken’s global lead – digital strategy, writes on three things he’s learned over three years of digital transformation at the global beer brand. This article appears in The SoDA Report, a global trend report out this week, and is reproduced here with permission.

 

When tasked with a digital transformation role on a global brand or portfolio, it’s mostly because the writing is on the wall: transform to a digitally-empowered, consumer-led brand or die. They mention those that failed: the record stores, the travel agents. Blackberry even. It might seem like I am the last in the queue, but here is why digital transformation affects us all.

When I meet peers at industry events for the first time, conversation almost always starts the same.

“Did you say you work at Heineken?” they ask.

“Yes…” I say.

“You’re safe then,” they respond.

(Often with a look of envy or confusion).

And that’s because consumers won’t be downloading their next beer from an app store. And so the argument goes. The beverage category is ostensibly well protected from digital transformation even when compared to other consumer goods. That’s because the product experience is very physical and while some consumers will increasingly shop online, the decision-making process and behaviours are not as involved as, say, baby products, coconut water or shaving gel.

But after three years of digital transformation, I have learned that even beer brands have a clear challenge: how do you stay progressive when you have a product that is 140 years old? This challenge is the reason I have a job. The recipe and ingredients (of just water, hops and barley) cannot change, but our brand building behavior must. By creating additional value for our consumers, digital is an enabler that helps us transform the contribution that marketing generates. Here are three lessons I have learned so far:

 

1. The strongest opponents to change are your greatest asset.

It’s getting harder for non-digital brands. Most people accept that digitally-enabled consumers increasingly use their digital and virtual brand experiences to assess the overall brand value. Your strongest opponents are those that recognise this and rightly fear that you could promote a culture of tricks and gadgets that divert attention away from your core mission.

When I started at Heineken, I was reminded that the biggest role for marketing was to ‘stay about beer.’ By spending time turning potential critics into advocates, I learned not only where this drive came from, but also where the ‘watch outs’ are.

For example, when the Heineken ‘Ignite Bottle’ project was kicked off, the brief started with the goal of creating a product experience in clubs that would make the brand the most desirable in an environment usually dominated by cocktails. The result was the world’s first interactive bottle using features from mobile devices like Bluetooth, LEDs and an accelerometer. And then we asked ourselves, how can this enhance the consumer experience? The result was a connected device that reacts and celebrates with you, your friends and the music around you. It could have been an easy mistake to think mobile-first and end up with an app instead.

 

2. Engaged consumers are the holy grail – strive for it but don’t expect it

When consumers participate in marketing activity, many of us (yep, me too) consider these people ‘engaged.’ However, the numbers people in the room remind us that we sell millions of our products every day and those interactions with the product far outweigh any ‘engaged fan count.’ But you have to balance the two. Triggering consumers to want to be part of a bigger whole is probably one of the simplest truths of our category. When we do so with intuitive and rewarding content, we trigger participation in many different forms. The fact that only a small percentage is deeply engaged doesn’t mean that their involvement is not valuable.

For example, the recent Heineken ‘Dropped’ campaign featured only a handful of fans and consumers, but by championing (and, yes, engaging) the few, over

37 million participated in the watching, sharing and endorsement of the content. One piece of content, called ‘Departure Roulette’, dared JFK Airport travellers to push a red button, ditch their plans and immediately fly to randomly selected exotic locales. For the follow up, we made surprise visits to people who had tweeted during the earlier campaign – and called their bluff as to whether or not they would push the button. These two films alone have been seen by over eight million people.

 

3. Ask yourself: how will your digital transformation benefit people and culture?

Closeness with our consumers is arguably the easiest way to value digital transformation. However, the effect that has on our internal team and collaboration is just as important.

And because Heineken believes that a world that is full of possibilities is one where people get more out of life, we need brand builders who are open to a digital world of possibilities (like bottles that connect with the music or engaged fans willing to travel to Cambodia at moment’s notice). Open Your World is not so much a tagline as a rallying cry for us to behave differently.

 

Jeremy Brook joined Heineken in 2011 and leads the development of Heineken’s media innovation and digital strategy. He is responsible for the development of new capabilities and ways of working, and creating new opportunities to drive the digital and media innovation agenda. He is charged with infusing state-of-the-art media principles, processes and best practices across Heineken’s paid, owned and earned efforts, both at the global and local level. Jeremy is committed to brands in a digital age. He passionately believes that being creatively and commercially focused can be the same thing.