"Does real brand loyalty exist?" - Interview, Walter Drenth, senior global director international brands at Heineken

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Last year, Heineken secured a return to the European sports stage for its Amstel brand. Having called time on its ten-year sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League football competition in 2005, Amstel has just completed the first of a three-year tie-up with the slightly lower-profile Europa League football tournament. Replacing Amstel as Champions League sponsor? Why, it was - and continues to be - brand Heineken. Last month, Olly Wehring travelled to Switzerland to meet Walter Drenth, the group's senior global director for international brands, before being forced to endure his team's defeat that evening to Seville in the Europa League final.

Amstel is one year into a three-year sponsorship deal with the Europa League football tournament

Amstel is one year into a three-year sponsorship deal with the Europa League football tournament

just-drinks: What prompted the company to sponsor the Europa League with Amstel?

Walter Drenth: Since Amstel stopped its sponsorship of the Champions League, the brand has had a lot of sponsorships at a more local level. We sponsor the Greek Football Union, for example. We also sponsor the Dutch football competition. This is also the case in markets in Africa, like Nigeria. You see around the world a lot of local associations for Amstel with football.

Amstel is very different to the Heineken brand, because the way it is managed varies market to market. That makes Amstel a more flexible, more versatile brand.

Today, the brand has momentum internationally, and the Europa League is growing in importance - there's a lot of enthusiasm and passion around the tournament. That's why we've moved into the Europa League with Amstel. At the last count, Amstel is in 94 markets - we recently entered Brazil and last year we launched Amstel Light in Mexico. We're also in Argentina now and in the Caribbean. The brand is expanding, so we thought the time was right to revisit a more global effort for Amstel.

j-d: But, why did you end Amstel's sponsorship of the Champions League?

WD: I wouldn't say that the Champions League is a better fit for Amstel than the Europa League. I see the competitions as different. There's not a number one and a number two competition - they're just different. I also see Heineken and Amstel as being different as well. Heineken is a much more global brand, Amstel is multi-local. With the Champions League growing globally, that works well with Heineken - it's a good fit. The Europa League and Amstel is also a good fit.

j-d: How has the Europa League tie-up worked this year?

WD: In the first year, the focus has been on getting the basics right. Before we add more complex levers, the basic activation is very important. We have done this differently to how we activate other programmes. We did a zero measurement before it all started. Then, after the final, we'll take another measurement and then look at how we move the needle. That way, we take the learnings on board and can change the activation accordingly.

j-d: How are the two brands positioned internally within the Heineken group?

WD: They're absolutely complementary. We see the two brands working together as a portfolio in many markets. Amstel is managed and positioned quite differently in multiple markets. That versatility is the power of the brand. But, they sit side-by-side and that's how we want it to be. There is no one-size-fits-all for Amstel. In the Netherlands, Amstel has a mainstream position, while in South Africa, it is more premium. Depending on the local context, that relevance and positioning varies. What is important is that we are complementary to the local portfolio and complementary to brand Heineken.

j-d: What are Amstel's top markets?

WD: Amstel has been present in Europe for a long time - Spain, Greece, the Netherlands are historically big markets for Amstel. Around 40% of Amstel's global volumes come from the Africa/Middle East region. We are growing momentum in Latin and South America, through Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean. So, it is growing its global footprint.

j-d: And where do you see future potential for the brand?

WD: The existing markets need to keep doing well. That said, we are seeing exciting growth in Africa and the Middle East. Pick-up in the Americas is also really good. In Asia Pacific, we are just in some small pockets, so there are opportunities to expand there. We're performing well in Russia, where Amstel has a premium position.

j-d: What other brands do you have in the international brands division?

WD: It's a diverse portfolio, which includes Belgium's Affligem and Mexico's Sol - which is more authentic than Corona. We also have Desperados, the Tequila-flavoured beer brand that is quite young. We've also just taken control of Red Stripe, which is a very nice addition to the portfolio, then we have Tecate, another very strong Mexican brand that is the second largest in the group, in volume terms. Finally, we have Asia's Tiger, which I see as having huge potential.

j-d: What plans do you have for Red Stripe?

WD: We are engaging with the brand, but we haven't finalised the complete strategy for it yet. I really like the brand, but I can't answer that question now. We need to get our heads around it first.

Walter Drenth, Heineken's senior global director for international brands

j-d: What do you like about it?
WD: The Jamaican authenticity is fantastic. There's definitely a market for authenticity, while the growing desire among consumers for variety and experimentation also positions Red Stripe well for the future.

j-d: Mexican beer brands are all the rage in the US – how is your portfolio from the country performing?

WD: Sol is a very strong Mexican brand, thanks, again, to its authentic story. The brand is looking very healthy in Brazil and Chile. It is also enjoying good momentum in Asia Pacific. That is part of the plan for Sol going forward. My responsibility is to increase momentum for our brands in different parts of the world. 

j-d: Turning to Tiger, how do you get developed markets interested in beers from emerging markets?

WD: Asia is an appealing region to many consumers - there is lots to discover about Asia. Tiger could be the Asian beer that could be exported successfully to other parts of the world: It could be the Asian beer that can travel. Also, there's an open-mindedness among many consumers to different taste profiles and to different beers. I think there is room for an Asian proposition, and I think there are enough opportunities to expand the footprint of Tiger.

j-d: With younger consumers, does the concept of authenticity in beer stretch beyond craft to international brands?

WD: I think it is still important. The realness of a brand is very important - things like the personality, the provenance, the behaviour of a brand. You need to be genuine to appeal to younger people. Obviously, there are many successful brands that have made up a story. But, in beer, it's very important where you come from, what your story is, what values you stand for.

j-d: What effect has the craft category had on international brands?

WD: I could talk for a really long time about this! Craft is generally a very good thing for the overall beer category - the interest it has generated in beer is fantastic. But then, craft has been defined differently in different countries. It means something completely different in the US to the UK and Europe.

If you look at the consumer repertoire, it was much narrower before craft arrived. Today, people are much more open to different experiences, thanks to craft. This also gives us opportunities - it's not so black and white to say it's us or craft that consumers choose. Consider Birra Moretti: The brand has launched line extensions in recent years. But, are these extensions just NPD, or are they craft offerings? They've played into the territories that you are talking about. Consumers have been very open to them. In essence, then, I think craft has been very good for the category. 

How has craft beer put the squeeze on world beers? - Click here for a just-drinks comment

j-d: Does craft hinder brand loyalty?

WD: Does real brand loyalty exist? You need to recruit your new consumers day in and day out. You will lose consumers every day, but you will also gain consumers. It's an ongoing process. What is more important for brands is that they make sure they gain penetration in the universe that they choose to play in. Depending on the strategy, it might be a large universe, it might be a small universe. You should not assume that when you get a consumer, you have them forever. That has never been the case and it never will be. You have to keep exciting your consumers every day.

j-d: Finally, from a brand perspective, who would Amstel want to win this evening's final between Liverpool and Sevilla?

WD: You just want to hear me say Liverpool! It doesn't matter - I just want to see a good final.

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Sectors: Beer & cider

Companies: Heineken

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