What 10 years at Heineken taught me about branding

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18 August 2021 (Updated 11 November 2023)
Brand building
What 10 years at Heineken taught me about branding

Diogo Pinheiro knew he wanted to work in marketing from the tender age of 13. Working since 2006, it was in his last role as Global Communications Manager at Heineken that he produced some of its most memorable work to date, learning a thing or two about brand building in the process.

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With 10+ years of experience, including his final position as Global Marketing Communications Manager at Heineken, Diogo Pinheiro knows a thing or two about how to build a successful brand.

Below he talks to Unfold about how to effectively research your audience, why low resources shouldn't hold you back, and how to play the long game.

How have you found moving from consumer goods to tech? 

After 10 years within the beer business, I thought, well, let's try something else. So I went looking. I set myself the task of finding a job in a company whose products you can't buy off a shelf. That’s how I found my new role. But after I started, I realized that I'm a consumer goods guy, not a tech one, although I love tech and have all the gadgets you can imagine. 

The reason is this: what I've learned from my new position, but also what I’ve observed in people that I’ve met that work in tech, is that many tech companies are product-led, making decisions based solely on product features, often with a short term view. This was a struggle for me as I’m a believer, first and foremost, in brands.

I was “raised” in a brand-led, consumer-centric company, so you can imagine how hard it was to cope with a completely different approach, one that is driven by product development and not so much by brand building.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions, like Apple, but it's hard to find examples of big, or even small, tech companies that really want to build meaningful and relevant brands and not solely focus on the product. As a result, I have witnessed many times products being put out in the market that has a million features- which the product developers probably love- but with very little market appeal.

They say legacy brands can't rest on their laurels anymore, as so many new competitors are entering the space- and they're doing really well- because they have more compelling brand offerings. How do you distinguish yourself as a large brand?

A lot of it is about consistency, about knowing what your brand is and what you want the brand to stand for. Not changing every single year just because there's a new trend is also key. There may be something that seems right at the time but if you look at the core of it, it's not right for your brand. You need to be able to make decisions on what not to do and what not to bet on. 

Having said this, listening to consumers and knowing how to innovate is as important. Being consistent doesn’t mean to stall and age. It means you know how to evolve your brand offer to keep it relevant for consumers.

I think that's one of the most valuable things that I've learned along the way: at the end of the day, consumers are always going to make the big decisions for your brand, you just need to be very, very attuned to hearing what they're saying and thinking. 

How do you make sure you listen effectively to your audience? There are so many different ways you can reach them, yet catching an accurate voice can still be quite hard for brands.

Well, I am a true believer in the power of agencies to help your company. I see there is a trend now of moving everything in-house. Which has a lot of benefits; it's faster, it's more cost-efficient. But at the same time, there are some pitfalls. You can become closed in the environment of your company and be unaware of things that are going on in the outside world. You’re more likely to miss trends when you’re not working with a partner that can bring invaluable knowledge about other businesses they work with.

Working with market research agencies allows you to stay on top of trends and current demands and helps you set the strategic direction for the brand.

How accurate are research agencies at predicting trends?

Very, very accurate. They are very experienced and work with multiple brands in different industries. With all of this information, they have a very precise understanding of what the present looks like and can draw quite an accurate picture of the future.

When presenting the trends they have discovered to multiple companies, those companies start acting upon them, so it’s like a multiplier effect and suddenly you see a lot of brands tackling the same topic, bringing it from a trend to market reality. I am a creative guy and I love research, it's very powerful.

Here's how human behavior helps us predict the future of PR and Communications. 

How about creative agencies: can they be helpful? Can you trust that they will do something that benefits your long-term brand vision rather than something fashionable that benefits their goals instead?

Well, that's your role as a brand guardian. It’s exactly that. You need to be able to separate what's in your interests and what’s in an agency’s interests. Because they do have their own agenda; they want to make money and they want to do creative work that gets them awards so they can get more work. But you also need to be able to say ‘actually (going back to the point of consistency) that doesn't make sense for my brand. It's a great idea but sells it to someone else, I need something that answers my business’ challenges’. 

In saying that, creative agencies do add a lot of value, they can and will push for things that you don't feel comfortable with, which is good. They will present you with awesome creativity and they will help you distinguish your brand from all the others.

I see agencies as part of the team, actually, I don't see them as an external partners. If you are able to build a relationship and partnership based on trust with them, they will become an extended part of your team and therefore your brand.

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How do you develop that intuition as a brand guardian? To be decisive about what is risky in a good way and what is risky in a bad way? I can imagine that's quite tough when you’ve got a lot on the line. 

Well, experience helps, but you never know for sure. Sometimes you're presented with a creative idea and you just have this gut feeling that that's going to be successful, and sometimes it’s the opposite. When you know your brand very well this decision gets easier, but there’s no golden formula that tells you this idea is going to be awesome. You have to make sure you know your brand inside out, look at research and make an educated decision.

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Springing to mind are some of the more poorly executed purpose marketing efforts that fall flat because they’re not aligned with their brand essence.

Yes, being true to your brand positioning is so important because it’s the basis of creating outstanding campaigns that consumers engage with.  I did a crash course on growth hacking a couple of months ago. And it made me really, really annoyed. Because in those two days I didn't hear once about brand positioning or brand purpose in a meaningful way, there’s was no importance given to creating high-quality content that’s credible for your brand.

Instead, it was kind of a template to create content that all looked the same, with no strategic thinking behind it. People in that room were pushed to write copy and produce content. Stock imagery and a short copy is all you need, they said multiple times. And then the output is a sea of poor content - whether it's video or images or websites- that are all the same. The font changes, the color changes, but there is no personality there. And I struggle with that because I'm a believer in strong, distinctive brands. I wonder how many of these hundreds of companies that are not building a strong brand and are producing low quality we will see alive in 10/15 years. 

It also annoys me that many “content creators” are treating consumers as a herd of brainless, lazy people that just want easy, short content. It’s not that people have lost their attention span and are looking only for 5-second videos. They are, however, a lot more criterial about how they spend their time 

It also annoys me that many “content creators” are treating consumers as a herd of brainless, lazy people that just want easy, short content. It’s not that people have lost their attention span and are looking only for 5-second videos. They are, however, a lot more criterial about how they spend their time and for sure it won’t be on poor content, whether that’s 5 seconds or 5-minute videos.

You’ve spoken before about the importance of content. Many brands don't invest in quality writing for example, why is so important?

Well, content is the way your brand looks out there in the world. It’s what helps consumers build associations towards it and what helps keep them close or far away from the brand. Just like with people… you’re drawn to people that have a rich, interesting speech, like Obama, and tend to ignore the ones that only have plain, dull things to say.

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Brands can become disillusioned when they don't see immediate results. Does brand building always have to be a long-term game?

It can’t all happen in a year. I always find it really funny in a lot of workshops, presentations, roundtables, etc. when people give examples like Nike and Apple, and yet they expect that in one or two years, they will be able to achieve the same results. They don't think that these brands have been doing it for many, many years in a very consistent way. You need to feel strong about your decisions, have your strategy clear, and have trust and patience.

How do you measure results?

There are so many resources to help you measure but I understand I've been a bit spoiled because I was in a company that had the budget to use them all. You can track your brand awareness, your brand health. You can track what people think and feel about it, why they are buying it, why they are not buying it. 

Having said that, I don't think you need that much money to do research nowadays. There are a lot of tools online that are easy to use and allow you to have a good grasp of your brand performance. I would advise anyone that's working on branding to start using them if they haven't already started. Because then you can see your brand progression, adjust what needs to be adjusted and get the reassurance you’re on the right track and it gives you the patience you need to be successful.

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Circling back to resources: some of your campaigns were just enormous, like the deepest dance floor in the world and a hot air balloon electronic light orchestra. What's it like to have a company with such a big budget say ‘hi, here’s a considerable amount of money: make something’?

Yes, I've done both very big campaigns with considerable budgets, but also smaller campaigns with tiny budgets that were really well-performing campaigns. When you have more money, to be honest, I don't think it makes it easier, for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly,  agencies will try to get their share of the money, which is fair, because they're building their business too. But you have to be very careful not to overpay them for things and just pay the fair price. 

Secondly, having money opens you to many more possibilities. So making the right choices for the money that you have can become more challenging. With a bigger budget, like I had at Heineken, you need to get the bang for your buck. It's not just like 'here's 2 million euros, take it and have fun.' You need to show results. So you're also always thinking ‘how am I going to invest this money in the best possible way’ 

When you don't have a lot of money you need to focus on what really matters and what is really important. I did a campaign in Portugal eight years ago, maybe with a budget of 15,000 Euros, which is really almost nothing. And it went really well. It made it to primetime TV and all the major publications. You don’t need lots of money for a campaign to be a success.

You did a lot of offline events or ‘marketing activations’ at Heineken, what is the value of these kind of physical activities?

In a physical space, you have the chance to show your consumers or potential consumers what the brand physically is. And that's of course easier for products than for services or for tech companies. But you have the opportunity to create this environment that's the perfect world for your brand. All of the people that go there, if you do it right, will never forget those events in their lives. 

You can create these really unique moments in the relationship of the brand and the consumer that will last for a long time. That's why I think they're really important. I mean, there is a reason why there are so many hundreds of millions of euros invested in brand experiences, from sponsorship of the World Cup to music events. Oddly, physical events give you something intangible you cannot get through content alone.

Considering so much in the world is now digital, do you think physical marketing will always be important?

I think so. Amazon was doing a pilot in the US stores without any employees where you could just go and get whatever you want from the shelf and it gets automatically charged on your account. If you put it back, you got the credit back immediately. It was a seamless process. And from a tech standpoint, it was already working really, really well. Which is scary. 

But they started to realize that people were afraid of going into the stores. Because there was no human connection at all. It was just you by yourself, grabbing something and getting out, feeling like you were in a very lonely futuristic world. 

People still need human connection. We went through a phase- and it’s probably still there to some extent- of extreme of isolation because of new tech and social media. People preferred to stay at home than to go out with their friends, preferred to FaceTime to going for a coffee. But I see a bit of a fade on that. I think younger generations- and even our generation- are becoming a little fed up with social media and the digital world and are trying to go back to the real world again. I hope it actually happens. We're still human, in the end.

Some people think if your marketing is really good, then it doesn't matter that your product is not the best out there. Do you think that’s true?

I think that was true back in the day when there was not so much competition and consumers were not so aware of brands and all the ingredients that go into their marketing activities. Nowadays, we know that consumers have a very good bullshit detector, and they quickly Google a brand to find out if it’s honest or not.

If you don't have a product that stands for what it's saying it is, I don't think you can have a long-lasting brand or a long-lasting product just because you have good advertising.

I remember you saying the brands need to be understandable. Does that mean simplifying your messaging?

It depends on the brand. For some brands, it might actually be good to be not easily understood. Because they have a different niche of people they want to reach. Think about painters, writers, or philosophers as a brand… not everyone understands Nietzsche, and that's fine. What’s important is that the audience you want to reach understands your brand and you should use a message that they get and identify with. 

Tell us about volume and aspirational target audiences

So the Mad Men era was a glamorous time for marketing. I think that's maybe what got me so excited about working in this field, because selling campaigns and products looked like so much fun and so glamorous. Back then people around the world would more easily engage with brands and buy them. It was easier because there was less competition, fewer media channels, less content clutter. You would define your aspirational target – the ones that truly embody your brand –, use it to brief creative and media and that would be enough.

Nowadays, things have changed and if you work only with the aspirational target, you’ll be speaking to a very small amount of people, that are not enough to drive business. So, you need to define your volume target as well, that is all the potential buyers of your brand.

The tricky part comes in balancing the two targets, the aspirational target can’t put the volume one-off and the volume target can’t jeopardize what you want the brand to stand for. RedBull have been doing this very well. Their aspirational target is everyone wants to go to extremes. So they have all of those crazy activations like people jumping off cliffs and planes. They're very consistent doing it, it's very true to the product because Red Bull gives you energy to do those crazy things. 
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Meanwhile, they also have those adverts with animations. It's a very simple animation showing that if you drink Red Bull, you get wings, and you get energy. And that one is for the volume target - anyone that needs a boost of energy. That's millions of people, almost everyone in the world. People going to extremes, the aspirational target, are just a few in the world. I love how they've been able to harness the two target audiences very, very well across time.

More of Diogo's thoughts on brand building can be found here, here and here.



Diogo Pinheiro has over 10 years of experience in branding and communications, with a track record of successful and awarded global marketing campaigns. He is currently leads the Global Brand Marketing team at JDE Peet’s, home to some of the world’s most well-known coffee brands like Douwe Egberts. He also worked as Global Communications Manager at THE HEINEKEN Company, he drove Desperados’ global creative, helping to reposition the brand worldwide.. Connect on LinkedIn or send an email

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