Heineken's Viral Ad: Family Business and Social Messaging

By April Hall

Taking on social issues in advertisements can be a dicey proposition, as Pepsi recently found out, but family businesses are in a unique position to make it work.

Family businesses can use the owners’ personal values to shape their brands, while messages with social themes coming from faceless corporations can feel insincere, says Scott Davis, chief growth officer at Prophet, an international brand consultancy.

Heineken, a family-controlled company, released “Worlds Apart,” a four-and-a-half-minute video, on April 20. Since its release, the video has been praised and has spread like wildfire on social media. Heineken’s official post of the video had more than 14 million views by the end of 2017.

It stands in stark contrast to last month’s Pepsi fiasco. The Pepsi ad, which starred Kendall Jenner, was panned because many saw it as exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soda.

In the Pepsi ad, Jenner strolls through a street demonstration, walks up to a police officer clad in riot gear and hands him a soda. The crowd erupts in cheers and all is right with the world. The backlash was swift and unrelenting. Pepsi scrubbed all evidence of the spot (as much as is possible on the Internet) before day’s end.

The Heineken ad—which the Dutch beer company says is in line with its values—has been largely praised.

The Heineken spot shows three pairs of strangers who bond over projects they are asked to perform. After they complete the tasks, they watch a video that reveals they have starkly opposing views. When given a choice to part ways or have a Heineken together, they opt for the beer. The video leaves the viewer with the hope that constructive dialogue is still possible, even during divisive political times. The participants seem to be unscripted.

“I haven’t seen any backlash on it at all—just a ridiculous amount of compliments and support,” Davis says. “People feel like it’s time for someone to stand up in the bully pulpit and share their values.”

Davis says the Pepsi spot feels “inauthentic to the brand.” The Heineken ad, on the other hand, seems genuine—the viewer doesn’t get the sense that the company is “jumping on the bandwagon” to appear socially relevant.

Heineken representatives could not be reached for comment, but Cindy Tervoort, the company’s U.K. marketing director, spoke to Fast Company earlier this week and said the message of the film, which has been in the works for six months, is consistent with Heineken’s history.

“As a brand whose end line is ‘Open Your World,’ we wanted to not just say we believe in openness, but seek to prove that even the most divided people can open up when they find something that connects them,” Tervoort said.

Tervoort said the participant were unrehearsed and knew nothing about the experiment before entering the warehouse where they were filmed.

Davis says that because of the content of the message, the ad would likely go to the highest level for approval in a family business. As executive director, Charlene Heineken-de Carvahlo would have been the last to sign off on the ad, Davis surmises.

“It’s their last name that is often associated with their brand,” he says. “You don’t want to take from that value.”

Tervoort said there were other pairs who were filmed but did not make the final edit. She said the company plans to release that footage in the coming months, in addition to working on encouraging open social dialogue through a partnership with The Human Library.