It is natural to expect the bosses at Heineken to want us to drink more beer.
But UK managing director David Forde, who has worked for the alcoholic drinks giant since he started as a shelf-stacker in Northern Ireland 27 years ago, actually thinks we should drink less.
“We don’t need to create value by getting people wasted,” Forde said over a beer at the company’s office near Oxford Circus, London.
“We feel the best before we have even sipped the beer. I don’t feel great and frankly I don’t believe people feel great when they’re on their seventh or eighth beer. I think people feel pretty poor, frankly.”
That’s why Heineken announced last month it is launching a new “Moderate Drinkers Wanted” campaign Since 2011 it has invested 10% of its annual advertising budget on adverts promoting responsible drinking. But it seems paradoxical: why would a company want you to consume less of its product?
“The business thinking is very simple. We will only sustain our industry if people enjoy our products responsibly. There is a short term gain in getting everyone to go out and lash into copious amounts of our brands. But eventually there will be a backlash by people themselves, by society, so it doesn’t make sense to us at all.”
In the latest ad in the campaign, the beer company presents women at bars and nightclubs as unsuccessfully searching for a rare sober man. The brand is trying to address a problem for which it must be at least partially responsible.
When asked if Heineken had encouraged excessive drinking in the past through its marketing, Forde said: “I think it would be unfair to say that there haven’t been occasions where we have.”
A difficult time to be a beer brand: “Unfair” taxes and strict alcohol guidelines
The UK alcohol industry is fighting several battles at the the moment, including government regulation that Forde views as “unfair.”
For one, he thinks tax on alcohol is too steep: “We face tremendous taxation pressures. Excise duties are incredibly high, the living wage has a disproportionate impact on pubs, rates are very high on pubs, pensions hit pubs. We account for 12% of all the beer sold in Europe and we pay 40% of all the excise duty,” said Forde. “It is one of the most taxed channels on the planet. Punters pay for that in the price of their beer. It is a sector that carries an unfair burden of taxation.”
UK government alcohol guidelines were revised in January. Men and women are now advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol (about six pints of beer) per week. Previously men had been advised that 21 units per week was OK, but this was slashed by one third after UK chief medical officers warned that drinking any amount of alcohol can increase the chance of getting cancer. So what does Heineken’s managing director think of the government guidelines?
“We will never as a company reject the government guidelines. I think you have to accept the mandate and the responsibility of government,” Forde said. “If you take them too far and stretch them to the point where consumers just don’t understand them any more or believe in them, then they become utterly irrelevant. There is a danger with the current set of proposals that that would be the reaction now.”
Geordie Shore “flies in the face of what we’re trying to do”
Forde thinks that the UK is recovering from its alcohol problem, but that there are still issues.
He said: “The are things that still today happen, particularly in the media, that really, really irritate me. So when I see trashy programs about Brits on holidays overseas getting smashed … What’s this [MTV reality TV series] Geordie Shore? All this nonsense trying to celebrate a lifestyle that’s utterly inappropriate for today. Trying to condone excessive consumption? That flies in the face of what we’re trying to do.”
“I don’t like shot culture. We’re improving but the job is not done,” he said.
He added: “What concerns me sometimes is that certain behaviours that society is concerned about and that government is concerned about are allowed to celebrated. Why one on hand do they ask us to be responsible and then they allow a media house then to fly in the face of the things we are asked to do? I can’t square that circle.”
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