Close-Up: Live Issue - Do beer brands need TV advertising?

Is Heineken taking an unnecessary risk by ditching its television ads for 2006, Poppy Brech asks.

Heineken's decision to pull out of TV advertising for 2006 is a bit like Manchester United deciding not to play Wayne Rooney in a Champions League final against Real Madrid: bold, risky and, in many people's eyes, unfathomable.

Not only is Heineken in the process of securing distribution for the premium variant it launched in the UK three years ago, but the Dutch brewer also has a strong advertising heritage in the UK, including a considerable investment in the Ray Liotta ads, created by Clemmow Hornby Inge.

Significantly, Heineken's competitors are unlikely to follow suit. "You're not going to find anyone lining up with Heineken here," a spokesman for Scottish Courage, whose portfolio includes Foster's and John Smith's, says. Neither will Carling be abandoning TV, according to the brand's marketing director, Bill Simcox.

Heineken's UK managing director, Rob Marijnen, cheerfully agrees that the decision to come off TV is risky, but says the brand is already visible on TV through its Champions League and Rugby Cup sponsorships.

He stresses that the decision only affects next year's TV budget and is an experiment to see whether TV advertising really is the Holy Grail when it comes to reaching the masses.

Meanwhile, Heineken's annual TV spend, valued by Nielsen Media Research at £3.1 million, will be used on press and outdoor ads. The aim of this strategy is to achieve what Marijnen describes as more "in the face" communication with consumers, and he hopes to replicate the visibility of Guinness' iconic toucan poster ads.

But is it the medium or the message that is at fault for Heineken? There's a growing feeling in the industry that beer ads are simply not as good as they used to be. Ed Morris, the Lowe London executive creative director, thinks this is the case: "Ten or 15 years ago, there was some great beer advertising - Castlemaine XXXX, Heineken etc. But at the moment it's a really weak sector and it needs help.

"There are too many agencies out there that aren't prepared to go through the pain barrier that it takes to get great work."

The CHI partner Johnny Hornby disagrees, naturally citing his own agency's work for Heineken, but also flagging up ads for Stella Artois and John Smith's. "If you're clever and witty, you can still do fantastic beer advertising," he says.

If Heineken's strategy of moving away from TV is high risk, its sponsorship strategy is extremely sound, according to Sebastian Smith, the vice-president of the sponsorship marketing specialist IMG Consulting. "The Heineken Cup continues to get better and better and it has quite a few music properties," he says.

"The Champions League is a good fit for Heineken, especially from a UK perspective, where it has gone premium, because it's the premium property within football."

Sponsorship, and sports sponsorship in particular, is a growth area for beer brands because, Smith says, it creates brand visibility like an ad campaign, but gives added value. "Sponsorship delivers an experience and an opportunity to touch people one-on-one, and you can create a marketing theme and positioning around it."

As it becomes harder to achieve cut-through via traditional TV advertising, Heineken may not be the only beer brand to ask: "Do we really need TV?"

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CLIENT - Bill Simcox, marketing director, Carling

"Speaking for Carling - and this goes for any brand that has scale or ambition in the long term - TV is a vital part of the mix.

"It has become harder to achieve standout on TV not just for beer brands, but for alcohol brands in general. From a regulatory point of view, there are things you can't do in alcohol ads because you need to be responsible about dramatising the creative. Also, when you look back into the history of beer brand advertising, there are a lot of paths that have already been trodden and you want to try to remain fresh.

"That said, as far as I'm concerned, we would not pull out of television because it's hard. Hard is just a greater challenge."

SPONSORSHIP SPECIALIST - Sebastian Smith, vice-president, IMG Consulting

"Beer is in a wonderful position in the world of sponsorship because it has an intrinsic relevance to sport and music - it is part of the experience. Any sporting or music event goes better with a beer.

"But for beer advertisers to move away from TV advertising in favour of sponsorship would be a bit radical. TV advertising and sponsorship normally co-exist and both do quite different jobs. If you have got a more complex message or you want to dramatise it, then you need TV alongside sponsorship."

MEDIA AGENCY - Mark Holden, executive planning director, PHD Group

"If a brand has established, powerful associations, then it can look to channels such as sponsorship to keep these alive. If there is still work to do on the brand, then I would worry about it not being on TV.

"The other issue is ROI. People think TV is expensive, but it's only because the amounts invested create that myth. On a cost-per-thousand basis, TV is around £7 per 1,000 - some other channels can be double that.

"You can do interesting things like posters that change outside football stadiums, but you need to think about the cost-per-contact point. It could be an expensive way of reaching people."

CREATIVE AGENCY - Neil Dawson, executive planning director, TBWA\London

"It all depends on the brand and its communications objectives. Beer brands have historically used TV to build brands and drive sales. The changing media landscape, the cost of media investment and the different media consumed by younger demographics mean some advertisers are questioning whether there are more cost-effective ways of reaching their audiences.

"The notion that TV must always be used should be challenged - the industry should be looking at ways of delivering those elements creatively. There's a whole area around brand entertainment that may be interesting for beer brands, such as creating content and programming experiences."