The Heineken Experience: Marketing that Leaves a Bad Taste in my Mouth

Let’s face it – we all go on brewery tours for the free beers. Heineken understands this, and has pretty much done away with all of the real brewing aspects of the show, while giving customers a strong dose of the Heineken experience: an extended opportunity to view Heineken ads, drink shots of beer offered from a Heineken star shaped bar, listen to hip-hop in a darkly lit room (chandelier of bottles of course) with ads blaring on all 4 walls and even make a music video with men in lederhosen as background singers. The most exciting part of all, though, was the “Brew U” experience, wherein we did not have a tour guide, nor did we see the actual brewing or bottling of beer. Instead we stood on a platform and got heated up and tossed around like malt.

But, perhaps, I’m just a crotchety idealist. This might be the most brilliant marketing strategy of all time. Customers who already have at least a passing interest in your product willingly pay 15 euros to be subjected to a 2-hour, full-sensory experience of it, with beer! When we ended the tour, I asked around to some of the other people who had participated, and they had a great time. People were loving it! They didn’t feel ripped off at all. And they weren’t all just 18 year olds stoked to be free of the drinking age restrictions in their home countries. They didn’t even realize that they had paid for pure advertising, but then, isn’t that the most effective kind?

Heineken might have one heck of an ad agency, but I can’t help but wonder if this sensory overload approach creates the same depth of loyalty as a more authentic experience might otherwise. Take for example the Anchor Steam tour. Anchor Steam is a San Francisco brewery that offers free tours twice a day, five days a week. On these tours, you actually get to see the place in action, talk to the brewmaster and even learn a thing or two about how beer is made and what makes Anchor Steam different from other beers. Here’s the 72 hour fermentation process boiled down to 18 seconds.

And, as only those who have been on the tour will tell you, it ends with all the beer you can drink.
I have got to tell you, I tell people about the tour every time I get the chance. I feel truly loyal to this product because of having the authentic experience of seeing it made. As a resident of the city where Steam Beer is brewed, I feel good every time I support this local business with my purchases. This is a beer I feel good about drinking.

Heineken, on the other hand, will still taste like Heinie to me.

Readers, what do you think? Is aggressive, yet innovative, marketing the best way to gain consumers’ trust?


Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

4 responses

  1. I definitely felt like a sucker for paying ‚Ǩ15 for this tour. There was, indeed, next to nothing describing the beer. The “experience” is a branding assault on steroids.
    That said, I wonder if I’d feel different about it if it had been free. No major brewery that I’m aware of (Miller, Anheuser-Busch, etc) charge for tours, and they offer similar, though not quite as technically advanced, branding “experiences”.
    I left in awe of the power of Heineken’s brand and the global empire they sit upon. I did not feel particularly compelled to increase my loyalty to their beer, however.
    What DID impress me were the Wobo Bottles that I wrote about here. Those things make me want to drink Heineken all day.

  2. I definitely second your thoughts on the Anchor Steam tour, which I took a couple of years ago. It was so fun learning about the history of steam beer and the guy who started Anchor Steam, talking to the brewmaster, seeing the facilities and so forth.
    That’s too bad about Heineken. But it’s not terribly surprising either, considering their size. They are the Wal-Mart of Dutch beer. I think that nothing as large and global-capitalist as that can really compete with the smaller, more local and individual experience.

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