Bram Westenbrink

Global Head Heineken brand
"Topicality is what keeps a brand relevant and it’s also what consumers expect a lot."
In this episode of CMOtalk Klaas and Adam talk to Bram Westenbrink, Global Brand Director for Heineken. Bram will talk about why it is important to focus on brand relevance. What does it even mean in practice and how does it pay off?
According to Interbrand's Best Global Brands, Heineken is ranked the 3rd most popular brand in the world. Do you fancy to be number one?
'Yes. And we will be! If you look at the statements, this is Interbrand, we look at Kantar, brand value creator. And what you see is in the methodology they use; America and China are really important and really big in creating the value. And we are relatively small there, in those markets. So that's why we're not yet at number one. But if you for instance look at the Kantar brand value, we have been growing 16% in the last two years. That's why I expect we will be number one - I don't know exactly if it's going to be next year or the year after but for sure that's our ambition.'

How is that measured? Brand value? Is it a formula based on revenue?
'It's much more on revenue and growth of revenue is a little bit less from the equity side of the brand. They also put it into the equation but that's why big markets - if you look at the biggest beer markets in the world, America and China are really important. So if you're relatively small in the two biggest ones, you need some catching up to do. And that's what we're doing.'

What does it take to be the number one? How are you going to get there?
'What we really believe is that nowadays more than ever, it's about being a meaningful brand. We have a strong growth ambition for volume and want to reach this by becoming the most meaningful brand for younger consumers (always 18+). That's what we really believe in. It's about focusing on consumers, understanding their needs and being extremely relevant for them as a beer brand. We believe that by being the most meaningful brand for young consumers, we will also become the most important one in terms of volume and revenue. With young consumers I mean 18+, we will never focus on consumers younger than 18 or 21, depending on the legal drinking age. But it's about not going for the consumers that are 50 or 60 years old. And we also look a lot at generations - what are the different shifts for generations from millennials to Generation Z, what are the changes that we see in those generations?'
Is there no point in targeting older people? Are they set in their ways? They drink a certain beer all their life and they're never going to change brand - is that an issue?
'No, I think you should always look at the total scope but in a lot of markets, we work with a portfolio. We work with a portfolio of over 300 brands globally, targeting different consumer groups with different brands. We differentiate between a "volume target group" which we expect will buy our brand, and a "marketing target group" which we focus on to keep growing our penetration and staying relevant. We respect our older consumers but they are not the target of our marketing efforts.'

Bram, do you oversee all those 300 brands as director?
'No, I'm only responsible for the Heineken brand around the world and that's more than 170 countries that we are in and more than 80 countries we have our own operation. And I work with the teams in these markets to ensure the Heineken brand stays healthy and grows around the world.'

How big is the Heineken brand in terms of revenue if you consider all the other 300 brands?
'It's more than a third of the profit of the company roughly. And it's also a big part of the revenue.'
Can you explain a little bit about the differences from your previous job overseeing a local market? Either small like the Netherlands and big Brazil - and now overseeing a global market?
'Yeah it's a really big difference, especially if it's not your home market. In a local market, it is important to understand the local culture, demographics, and differences in regions, as well as the set of competitors in the market. You're always part of the culture of a country because beer habits and drinking habits and eating habits are always really rooted into the culture. It's relatively easy because you have the same set of competitors in the market. You know who the competitors are and the landscape you're operating in, you know the dynamics. However, in a global role, it is harder to balance being a consistent global brand while also staying locally relevant. There are differences in how societies react to communication, making it a challenging task.'

And how do you do that? How do you get there?
'I'm a big believer in teamwork and cooperation which is really important in overseeing a global market. We have one global agency around the world. So we have a strong relationship with our global agency partner and strong teams on the ground in different markets, and we use the mantra "localize at scale" to balance the need for global consistency with local relevance. We believe in being close to the market and local trends, and deciding which elements to flex and which to keep global.'

How do you get all those insights from the market? Is it like a big hierarchy? Or do you have townhalls? How do you get all the insights from the market?
'The agency has a data lab that captures global data such as social listening and culture trends. Then we have data translators that translate this data into global universal insights that have relevance in more than one region. That's what's happening on the agency side. The teams have people who oversee a region and are in weekly contact with markets and travel a lot to get information. The global role requires direct interaction with markets and traveling to understand the market, consumers, customers, and our route to market by walking the streets, visiting bars, supermarkets, and talking with your wholesalers and your customers. So that's what I do when I go on visits.'
We're going to talk a little bit about the competition. Budweiser relies firmly on their Superbowl commercials, what about Heinekens image? What comes to consumers’ minds when they think about Heineken and what would you like them to think?
'Heineken has developed a brand stage model to segment the different stages of our brand development in each market, with stages ranging from anchor to super stars. And based on the stage, consumers get a feeling of our brand. The brand development model is based on the length of time we have been in the market, with longer established markets having a more advanced brand stage. We aim to evoke feelings of inventiveness, worldliness, internationalism, and open-mindedness, which are the themes we check for and hope to see back according to the stage they are in the brand building stage model.'

How do you keep the brand relevant? Do you have a secret?
'The secret to being relevant to consumers is understanding their needs and being meaningful, interesting and relatable to them. This includes having the right message at the right time to the right consumer, having a point of view on important topics, and staying current with news and events. We believe that being topical and having a point of view on current events is important for the brand.'

Can you give an example?
'Mr. Heineken, the founder of the company, would read the newspaper while driving from his house to the head office here in Amsterdam. He would put a big mark around any topics he felt Heineken should have a point of view on. He was a hands-on creative owner and had the agency sitting next to his office. He was a real marketeer. We had growth and disxcovered the importance of marketing. He would go to the agency and express his desired brand point of view on certain topics, and the next day there would be a newspaper ad on that topic.'
How do you do that now?
'Our marketing strategy has shifted away from newspaper ads and towards social media posts. We often take a point of view on current events and topics, such as a famous post about the Champions League and the Super League, with the message "Don't drink and start a league." We try to stay relevant by being timely and topical, and this is what consumers expect. Younger consumers want fast, quick reactions to current events. It is harder to do this on a global scale than on a local scale.'

Would you say that Heineken is in favour of brand activism? Should more brands be more outspoken and take a stand also in terms of public opinion and topics that matter?
'Yes and no. I believe brands should be vocal about topics that align with their values and identity, rather than using brand activism to jump on a trend for attention. I think it's important to consider if the brand is credible to talk about the topic, and if we can do it in a consistent and honorable way. If it meets those criteria, it's a good thing to have a point of view, otherwise it's the wrong thing to do.'

It's always with those sensitive subjects, there's a lot of tension, right? But did you as a brand take a stand regarding those different topics like war?
'There is a distinction between the Heineken brand and the Heineken company, and we must consider this when addressing sensitive topics like the war in Ukraine. As a company, we withdrew from Russia and the Heineken brand was the first to do so. It's important to not only express a point of view, but also take action to support it. We refer to this as "ads and acts" and strive to balance the two. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, we have been trying to move from ads to acts. Consumers expect not only to hear something but also see actions that align with what the company is saying.'
Responsibly is a broader theme for Heineken. You mentioned the Champions League but also Formula 1, don't drink and drive. Can you tell us a little bit more about the strategy behind that?
'There is an importance of responsibility in the alcohol industry, particularly for the Heineken brand. We have a long-standing commitment to promote responsible consumption, dedicating at least 10% of our budget to campaigns that encourage it and have a goal to reach at least one billion consumers every year with this message. We use various ways to express the message such as "don't drink and drive" and "the morning belongs to the ones that consume in moderation." We emphasize that responsible consumption is an extremely important theme for the brand.'

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