Up to then, I had never had a beer in my life, so I started to tune Foley's speech out. Instead I just watched him circle the room. He was proudly holding a bottle of beer high in the air, like the Statue of Liberty, never once putting the bottle down. Flush with emotion, he quoted the company's flamboyant CEO, Freddie Heineken, who said, "I don't sell beer, I sell warmth." I knew right then that the beer was the least of what Heineken, and Michael Foley, were about, whatever they might say. I went back to my office and reported to my staff: "This guy doesn't think he has a beer, he thinks he has a piece of pop culture. He thinks he's got a Kodak. That's the point we have to get across in our advertising." I told them to throw out everything that they were working on for the account. "I don't want anything that feels like beer. None of that typical jock stuff with girls and sports. No talk of imported hops or filtered mountain spring water." My staff protested, and reminded me that they had great funny ads. "Every other agency will have great funny ads," I retorted.
Instead, Douglas Atkin, our strategic planner at the time, went into action. He spent the next two weeks visiting bars to find out exactly how people felt about their beer, and how it was intertwined with their lives. "We even used an anthropologist to conduct focus groups of people who drank beer," remembers Atkin. He discovered that "when people drink, they go through a rite of passage. They enter this rite of passage with their social personas on, whatever they'd adopted to get on in the world. As you drink your inhibitions go down and you start behaving-or it feels this way to the person drinking-on a more authentic level." Drinking beer, in the minds of its fans, strips away anxieties and pretenses and allows you to become your core self: honest, uncensored, unpretentious. It enables you to say and do things with an honesty you might never be able to muster otherwise.
Not only that, but nearly everybody associated the Heineken brand with truth and authenticity, not least because its recipe has been unchanged for over one hundred years. "Most American beer is seen as inauthentic because they throw all sorts of things in them," Atkin says. "But European beer is authentic because it just has four ingredients: water, hops, yeast, and malted barley. Heineken is one of those, and it comes from northern Europe, the center of beer-making in Europe. It has provenance, the right location, and history, all of which makes it authentic. It tastes real." We realized then that the advertising had to say that Heineken is a cultural icon, a symbol of truth. It was an authentic activity done with an authentic brand. This beer is the real thing. And so the "True Conversations," campaign was created-a series of ads based on real conversations from bars. The ads featured no cleavage, no sports, and no people (so that guys twenty-one and forty-one would identify with the spot). There wasn't even a mention of the beer. The campaign consisted of shots of bars, closeups of beer being poured, the Heineken logo, accompanied by charming exchanges like this: Man's voice: "You don't know who wrote Moby Dick?"
Woman's voice: "No."
Man: "You don't know who wrote Moby Dick."
Man: "The one with the whale."
Woman: "I saw the movie." Man: "But you never read the book." Woman: "So what?" Man: "So what? It's Moby Dick." Woman: "Look. I don't know who the [beep] wrote Moby [beep]-ing Dick. OK? Man: [Long pause]. OK. Type superimposed on the ad: Their words. Their beer. It's all true. Tagline (as the Heineken logo flashes on the screen): True to the original recipe since 1886. Final tagline: Herman Melville.