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Heineken recently announced a huge gear change in its alcohol marketing by entering into ‘the largest ever single sponsorship deal involving a non-alcoholic beer brand’, replacing Amstel as a Uefa Europa League sponsor. Hans Erik Tuijt, Heineken global sponsorship director, explains why.

Heineken has been a Uefa partner in one way or another since 1994. Now, it’s putting down around €10m ($11.7m) a year to associate its non-alcoholic Heinkenen 0.0 alternative with European football, according to SportBusiness. While Heineken remains a partner on the higher-tier Uefa Champions League sponsorship, its bets are now hedged on the growth of the 0% ABV sector.

Hans Erick Tuijt, Heineken’s global sponsorship director, has observed a surge of health and wellbeing trends accelerated by consumer reactions to coronavirus. This has helped drive a 40% sales growth in the 0.0 brand, year on year. Particularly in Russia and Europe. That growth helped to deliver some of the group’s best results in a decade.

“We’re confident that this category will keep gaining importance in these markets thanks to top innovation on taste,” he says.

His goal is to target the ‘Can’t-ers’ and ‘Don’t Want-ers’, parents, professionals and active people who can’t, or don’t want, to get drunk, but still enjoy the taste of beer. 

But the campaign is being driven by insight around the new state of broadcast football.

“We can watch football almost every day right now, so it’s just not always reasonable to enjoy an ice-cold Heineken with every match.”

With the closure of stadiums, broadcasters haven’t been shy about putting more matches on TV – there’s no risk of it cannibalising live ticket sales, after all. Every day now hosts some footballing occasion. It isn’t hugely responsible or productive to encourage beer consumption on each of these days, especially considering the pandemic and impending recession bubbling away in the background.

Heineken 0.0% is now available in 58 markets globally (more than half of those in Europe). The crossover with the Uefa competition offers a supposed cumulative viewership of 550 million people across all live programming and an average 37 million viewers each matchday.

“We have a bold ambition and a great commitment to lead the premium non-alcoholic beer segment and build positive associations around drinking choices – in other words, we want to make alcohol-free beer cool.” It will be able to activate the ’Now You Can’ campaign across stadium boardings, digital rights, in-stadium executions, screenings and competitions. And that’s just using the old way of thinking: sports marketers are coming up with new approaches every day in digital. 

It’s not just sports broadcasting that’s changed in lockdown. People have – or more specifically, their consumption habits.

“It’s no secret consumers have used lockdown to kick-start or refresh their health habits. And globally, we’ve never been more conscious of our health, which goes hand in hand with the wellbeing trends which we’ve seen enter mainstream consciousness in recent years.”

With a measured decline in mainstream beer sales before the pandemic, one of the growth areas was non-alcoholic alternatives, as well as craft beers and seltzers. With this new sponsorship, Heineken will look to “unlock key non-alcoholic drinking occasions around sport”.

But what does the prominence of the non-alcoholic product do for ABV-inclusive brands like Heineken and Amstel?

Tuijt believes that “the Heineken brand name through both products can become more synonymous with European football as a whole”. The belief is that this new bet can only grow the market, and though putting down the biggest spend so far will provide a sure-fire headstart, it won’t be a big one. Last year, Diageo tested the waters (pardon the pun) with Guinness Clear around its rugby properties.

Meanwhile, you might wonder what’s happened to Heineken’s Amstel brand, now it’s been dropped from Uefa? Apparently, it’s focused on “leveraging the synergies between markets for amongst others the Copa Libertadores in South America”.

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Heineken’s return is accompanied by a new TVC campaign entitled ’The Wait’. It’s early days yet, but Tuijt expects to see a performance spike. “With regards for performance of sponsorship properties, it will be interesting to see if there’s a spike in interest due to football’s return and the fact the competition will be finished off in a higher intensity mini-tournament format in Germany.”

The semi-finals and final will be played as a straight knockout tournament across four cities in Germany (Cologne, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Gelsenkirche) in August, in single-leg short bursts.

But this is a long-term deal. Heineken is sealed in for the next four years and will enjoy additional reach from the introduction of the Uefa Europa Conference League in the 2021/22 season. 

However, the beer brewer is walking a fine line. Once upon a time we could have said the company sells alcohol. Now it sells beer, some with, and some without, alcohol. Can it make non-ABV alternatives cool without cannibalizing or demonizing its main product? Is it diversifying at the expense of itself or growing a new, undeniably healthier product? We’ve seen the ’Now You Can’ campaign look to unlock lots of new drinking opportunities (like in the workplace, the gym, or in a car). Will it bite into the beer occasions too?

Tuijt concludes: “I think there will always be a demand for the original brand, however we need to satisfy growing trends like the interest in low and ’no’ categories, and we think it’s a bold move to support it on this platform.“

The Europa League returned last week. Underlining the new digital-first strategy was a live-streamed gig from Defected Studios. With such a radical shift in the sponsorship strategy, we can continue to expect more fresh ideas from Heineken going forward.

 
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