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Creativity: the first line of defence in times of crisis

The pandemic has shown that organisations which championed creativity will emerge stronger

‘Character building’ is probably the way my late father would have described the last 18 months. We have all been tested in ways we could have never envisaged – personally or professionally – and in many instances, both.

From a business perspective, as we move into the closing quarter of 2021 and our reflective gaze is drawn to what made the difference between winning and losing, it has never been clearer that the organisations which championed creativity will emerge stronger.

This week we're joined by Mark Noble, marketing manager Heineken Brand, Heineken Ireland, to discuss what marketers can learn from the way brands have approached their creative during the pandemic. Listen now: 

Consumer habits evolved continuously through the different phases of lockdown; from those who focused on their health and wellbeing to those who enjoyed a little bit of overindulgence ‘just to get through the monotony’. The brands who won during this time hit the sweet spot in remembering that there is a real person – a dad, a mum, a sister, brother or friend – behind every piece of consumer behavioural analysis.


A prime example of this is within the alcohol industry, where we saw a seismic shift between our two key channels. For organisations such as Heineken Ireland, the sustained closure of the hospitality sector along with the cancellation of the live events industry and the lack of fans in sporting arenas meant we had to reimagine consumer engagement.

Trying to replace those pillars, which underpinned our brands for decades, resulted in many sleepless nights. When all that you have grown accustomed to is gone in the blink of any eye, the importance of creativity crystallises.

In the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown in March 2020, all marketing departments braced themselves for that dreaded call from their financial director. When those first two weeks of lockdown were extended, and ambiguity became the new norm, it would have been easy to pull up the drawbridge on marketing investment.

At Heineken Ireland, we took a different approach. In the world of fight or flight, we froze. For about 48 hours. Then, we decided to fight. We were brave with our approach. Nobody knew how long the hospitality sector would be closed for, so we needed to embark on a journey of relentless prioritisation of our brand spend.

‘Kept the lights on’ 

One of the lessons learned from marketing in a crisis is to consolidate spend and focus on your strongest portfolio assets. We ‘kept the lights on’ for our essentials but diverted the majority of our marketing investment into our crown jewels. The Heineken brand is, unsurprisingly, the foundation of our business and so we decided to bet big on our number one brand to help us navigate through the crisis and connect consumers with brands they trust.

Marketers often bandy about the term ‘bravery’ like a badge of honour when it comes to developing campaigns. Bravery during Covid-19 lockdown for me and the Heineken brand team was accepting the responsibility of moving from spending ‘your brand budget’ to ‘everyone’s brand budget’. If our plans for the Heineken brand didn’t connect and resonate with a new locked-down consumer, the impact could be bigger than just a ‘bad month’ at the (home) office.

Our guiding principle during this period was that brands needed to show more empathy and understanding during difficult times. Campaigns are under greater scrutiny, with more pressure on them to truly resonate. We went back to basics. Sociability is at the heart of the Heineken brand.

Why would Teddy in Greystones or Grace in Naas give a damn about this?

But how could we tap into this appropriately when the world around us was recasting social norms and social distancing became a vital, and essential, public health measure in fighting the pandemic? We found our calling in reminding people of the connections we all have, whether together or apart.

For us and our agency partners this played out in a very simple question we asked each other at every turn: ‘Why would Teddy in Greystones or Grace in Naas give a damn about this?’ If we could answer that, we could be confident something special was brewing.

And, if I could focus on two very special moments that we did brew up during lockdown; they are our The Perfect Match campaign and our Fresh Beginnings programme.

Our conception and production of The Perfect Match advertising campaign told a Heineken Rugby story of three imperfect couples. All three madly in love; until their opposing teams faced off against each other. An insight that feels close to home for many of us, including my wife, who hails from Southampton and who still can’t quite understand why I haven’t bowed to the pressure to support her home team.

Never dreamed possible

One of the great learnings from this pandemic is doing things remotely that we never dreamed possible. In spite of never sitting in the same room as us, Publicis Dublin worked tirelessly with us to shoot the best-scoring TV campaign in Heineken Ireland history.

Undoubtedly a different experience, and at times difficult, it was a process that brought the client and agency relationship closer than I have ever experienced before. You get to know people very well when you talk to them from a laptop in your bedroom for nine months!

Creativity, however, does not solely live in the domain of the brand marketer, focusing 100 per cent on the end consumer. Creativity needs to be culturally adopted across all functions from marketing to finance, sales to HR. As creativity was adopted across our organisation, collaboration between departments accelerated and ideas cross-pollinated.

It wasn’t just brands that embraced more empathy, businesses in all sectors stepped up to do things, not just say them. This was the basis for our Fresh Beginnings initiative launched to support the phased reopening of the hospitality sector.

Creatively, we set out to engage our consumers to remain salient and relevant. We also set out to support our on-trade pub customers, many of whom had endured closure for an unimaginable 500 days. Finally, we wanted to corral our colleagues, our very own Heineken green army, to bring a smile back to their faces as our whole business got behind the effort to support customers reopening.

As we look to brighter days on the horizon, more opportunities to engage consumers will return

Like an equilateral triangle, each side was even. If one side fell down – it would not feel the same. Ten million euro was invested into this programme, which runs until the end of this year. Fresh Beginnings encompassed heavyweight multichannel advertising, tangible customer support through a bar-staff thank you programme, revamped outdoor pub spaces for consumers to enjoy to and a Heineken staff stimulus fund that sees every colleague in our business get €250 to spend in their local pubs.

Fresh Beginnings was born from collaboration and delivered by all corners of our business. Personally speaking, this delivered an example of creativity that I’m most proud of, with a tangible impact for everyone it touched.

What next? As we look to brighter days on the horizon, more opportunities to engage consumers will return. Festivals will return. Stadiums will be full and the institution that is the Irish pub will be reborn. While the familiar returns, it would be fruitless to go back to how we did things.

Consumer attitudes, behaviours and expectations have changed. Competition will be stronger and new challenges will emerge. But the true power that creativity can have on business performance will be as important as ever. It’s not just the marketers who should embrace it.

Mark Noble is marketing manager at Heineken brand, Heineken Ireland