Heineken will collect the prestigious Creative Marketer of the Year award at adland’s big show, the Cannes Lions, this year. The company, which has in excess of 250 brands globally, has a history of producing compelling creative work, but over the last few years, boasted particularly high-profile ad campaigns across its Heineken, Dos Equis, and Newcastle Brown Ale brands.
Senior director global marketing capability, Cinzia Morelli-Verhoog, is of course delighted that the company is being recognized but, in her view, it should not really be a surprise. “Heineken winning the Creative Marketer Award may be new for this generation of marketers but it is not new for Heineken. We did this exactly 20 years ago, it is part of the company DNA to look to creativity to drive engagement with consumers.”
Heineken is undergoing some structural changes at the moment, as the company, and the beer category generally, face challenging times. The chief marketing officer and chief sales officer roles are being merged and this has led to the departure of the highly regarded CMO Alexis Nasard. Jan Derck van Karnebeek, currently the president for central and eastern Europe and global chief sales officer is stepping into the new role of chief commercial officer. Morelli-Verhoog will also see her own role expand and develop (but was not able to reveal precisely how just yet).
Alongside the reorganization the company has also ended a five-year relationship with Wieden + Kennedy, which had acted as lead creative agency on the flagship Heineken brand. The agency was responsible for Heineken’s strong ad presence over the past several years, creating the long-running “Open Your World” campaign and the “Legends” platform.
While the timing of this announcement, the week before Cannes Lions kicks off, might seem a little poignant, the loss of a key marketing figure who was perceived as a driver of great work, and the departure of an elite agency partner also seem to put a question mark over the company’s creative prospects (before consolidating with W+K in 2011, Heineken burned through six agencies in nine years, prompting Adweek to ask if the company was the Worst Client Ever). Yet, Morelli-Verhoog insists W+K’s exit and the aforementioned leadership changes will have little impact on Heineken’s capacity to produce creative work.
The global operation has more than 1,500 marketers, some acting globally and others regionally and locally. And Morelli-Verhoog says the company has, over time, developed a range of strategies and structures to enable, encourage and develop creativity, at scale. She shares some of them here.
Morelli-Verhoog says that each category has a “code,” a sort of “creative culture” associated with it and which are reinforced by run-of-the-mill communications from the majority of brands. She elaborates: “In the beer category, 80% [of brands] tend to advertise with what we call cliché communication, the type you would associate with beer. To portray, for example, the usual boys, the banter, the beach and scantily dressed good-looking girl, with the backlit shot of the beer at the end. These are the ‘aspirational’ codes of the beer category. The ‘credential’ codes are the master brewer, showing spring water and fresh barley in the background.”
“For Heineken, the cliché is not just a general definition but also a very clear creative barrier that we never want to go below. With all the brands where we have creative ambition, we try to break the category codes and provide consumers with something different that generates not only interest in our brands but also interest in our beers.”
Heineken is obviously a large organization–globally there are 85,000 employees, with 1,500 of them marketers. In an attempt to scale best behavior across the company and ensure everyone adopts the same language and uses similar criteria to define what great creativity is, the company operates a Global Commerce University (GCU). It is a global hub, which provides mandatory training primarily for marketing and sales staffers. Morelli-Verhoog says: “It produces, deploys and embeds capabilities to build stronger brands. One of the fundamental capability streams is creativity.” The “backbone” of this stream is an internal tool known as the “creative ladder.” This is a 10-step ladder going from “destructive” creativity at its base to “legendary” at the top.
Morelli-Verhoog explains: “If you want great creativity you need to be able to talk about it and to give it a language, because more often than not, creativity is very subjective, it has a lot to do with gut feelings, and the experience and legacy of the different individuals. By introducing the creative ladder we created a language within Heineken. For example, ‘cliché creativity’ is level number four of our ladder, so anything that is ‘cliché’ is a creativity of a kind that we don’t consider makes any impact.”
An example of “legendary” work would be the launch of the Apple Macintosh, Morelli-Verhoog says, because it changed how people lived their lives. A number nine, known as “cultural phenomenon” would be, for instance, Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, because “it makes a wave of conversation that changes the way people think about beauty.”
Morelli-Verhoog adds: “Sometimes you realize a piece of work is a ‘cultural phenomenon’ or ‘legendary’ only after years. Then you see how it remains in the memory, how it is included in topics where the category doesn’t belong at all and you realize the kind of impact, the kind of shake that it has given to the common beliefs about the brand.”
While Heineken has no formal way to measure creativity (Morelli-Verhoog laughs: “We don’t have a methodology or tools where we throw an ad in one end and it comes out the other with a number”), creativity is continually and formally on the agenda so that people debate it, compare notes and assess other brands’ work on an ongoing basis. One way is via the “Creative Council” whereby marketers are trained to sell creativity within the organization, so they are “able to articulate a debate and a narrative about the creativity they choose.” At annual gatherings, marketers debate with their regional peers about the choices they have made. “It has an incredibly educational power because we concentrate in one room the best creative minds at the most senior level. In a secure environment we allow them to compare notes on what great creativity is.”
Another way is “Creative Monday.” Morelli-Verhoog says: ”Every Monday morning at 9 a.m. we send out a not-easy-to-judge piece of creative to the entire marketing community. We’ve done Adidas, Red Bull, Beats, and so on. Then people judge the work in terms of the creative ladder. Sometimes we ask people to explain their thinking because it is not about the voting, it’s about articulating the rationale. It gets super-passionate and then at 10 a.m. we stop. On Tuesday we [the GCU] reveal what we think and explain why a 7 is a 7 or a 6 is a 6. People love it because it is low effort for them, but it formally keeps creativity on the agenda every single week. We don’t let go.”
Not all great creative is conveniently presented on a plate and Heineken teaches its marketers to know it when they see it–and then to fight for it. “We train our people to recognize the creative nugget in initial proposals where maybe there is a mixed bag of stuff, “ says Morelli-Verhoog.
“There is a moment when you see great creative, that you realize this is going to be different. So we really train our people to be able to recognize and develop creativity and also in the type of leadership to have the courage and boldness to fight for it.”
She continues: “Real, world-class creativity is disruptive and is something that has never been done or seen before, so comes totally outside the comfort zone. The biggest risk in this case is if Heineken were an organization that sees anything that has not been done before as risky, but actually, for us, the creative that is most risky is clichéd because you know for sure it will not make an impact and be part of the wallpaper, where we don’t want to be.”
Morelli-Verhoog paints a picture of an organization where creativity and bravery is not just applauded but one that has gone to considerable lengths to create structures and a culture where it can thrive. She says that the training and systems that have been created allow Heineken’s marketers the freedom to experiment but also provide parameters, which are considered best-in-class, not just in the beer category but across all categories. Morelli-Verhoog concludes: “As I said, it is in the company DNA, it is part of the history of Heineken itself…so this type of behavior and culture remains in everything we do when we build brands.”
Can those structures deliver a game-changing creative product when the creative players behind it have changed? The proof will reveal itself, in the marketplace, and at the Cannes Lions, 2016, 2017, and beyond.