Brewing a Big Brand: The Heineken Experience

When you think of Amsterdam, marketing is not the first thing that comes to mind, right? You probably think Red Light District, legal marijuana and college kids partying themselves stupid.

Aside from those things (which are actually on the decline), the city is filled with interesting architecture, a maze of canals, cuisine from every corner of the world, and one of the best examples of brand marketing I’ve ever seen: The Heineken Experience.

Even if you’ve never been to Holland, you’ve heard of Heineken. Til this weekend, I’d never tasted one and wasn’t really interested in it. But drinking Heineken is a tradition here, so we decided to visit the museum as see what all the fuss was about.

Welcome to Heineken

The Heineken Experience tour begins in an old-fashioned pub with two huge screens behind the bar. Already, visitors get the impression that Heineken is about good friends and good times.

The narrator jumps between the screens giving a brief run-down of the company’s history and what makes its beer great. His costume changes as he becomes the founder and then successive company leaders.

Evolution of the Heineken logo and bottles. The red star and the Heineken lips have always been prominent. The five-pointed star represents the natural elements earth, air, fire and water, along with magic, which the first brewers thought was responsible for creating alcohol in the beer.

Near the bar there is a set of Heineken billboards with holes cut out where faces should be, so visitors are already having fun…especially the men sticking their faces into pictures of Dutch barmaids.

Brewing Up Business

Several copper roasting, boiling and brewing vats line the brewing room.

For those who have no real idea how beer is made (that’s me), prepare to be educated. Heineken prides itself on its proprietary yeast and they go to great lengths to explain the science behind its development and why it makes Heineken beer distinctive. Then, visitors get to see and smell the raw grains and hops that go into brewing as they round the corner into the brewing room.

Giant copper vats line both sides of the room. But rather than just tell visitors what each vat is for, Heineken marketers have opened the sliding doors and encourage visitors to peep inside. There, videos projected on walls of the vats explain what happens – roasting grain, boiling mash, incorporating yeast.

Brew you, buddy!

Understanding that seeing isn’t always believing, Heineken marketers have added a 4D ride that aims to “brew” visitors so they can experience the brewing process as if they were the beer. Riders are dropped into a roasting oven, mixed with water, stirred up to perfection, bottled, crowned, pasteurized, labeled, boxed, and then shipped to end up at a beach party.

There’s no better way to identify with a brand than to share an experience, and this ride gives you a real appreciation for the process behind making Heineken beer.


After an hour of thinking about beer, learning about how beer is made, and actually getting brewed, it’s time to finally take a taste. But Heineken is serious about the enjoyment of its product – there’s a right way and a wrong way. Grab a glass, just don’t drink it yet! A freshly poured beer should sit for 5 minutes before you take the first sip.

While we wait, our bartender tells us the proper way to enjoy a beer (BTW, it was a little funny to listen to an Irishman preach about the virtues of Dutch beer). Women, apparently, don’t like beer because we don’t know how to drink it properly.

The Irish barman in the Dutch brewery says we should stand up straight, bring the beer to us (not the other way around), and take a deep manly gulp that brings the beer up through the foamy head. He says the reason we don’t like the taste of beer is that we delicately sip the foamy part and that’s where the bitterness is.

He says the head has a function – to keep the oxygen in the air out of the beer and keep the carbon dioxide in the beer, well, in the beer.  The bubbles you see under the head mean the head is doing its job to keep your beer fresh, all the way to the bottom of the glass.

Time’s up! The bartender tells us all to lift our glass and give the traditional Dutch toast: “Proost!” (Thankfully, though it’s spelled differently, it’s pronounced the same in German, so we weren’t totally confused.)

Have a Drink on Me

After you’ve learned how to enjoy a Heineken properly, go have a few more in the World Bar. Passing through a room where the walls are giant video screens of all the sports Heineken sponsors and the ceiling and chandeliers are all made of Heineken bottles, visitors begin to understand that Heineken is really a world beer and that it can be purchased just about anywhere (including your neighborhood beverage store back home).

Head over to the bar and trade the tokens attached to your souvenir Heineken bracelet for a few beers. Then head to a table inlaid with a digital screen. When you set your beer on the table, a Heineken coaster appears. As panoramic views of the world’s cities appear on the walls, use your beer and its digital coaster to navigate menus typical for that city and hover over a plate to see traditional dishes appear.

Got a buzz? Go shopping!

Of course, what tour of any museum would be complete if it didn’t dump visitors out in a gift shop? Quick, before your buzz wears off, run through the shop and pick out something to take home as a memento of your visit.

Brand Marketing Insights Are Free

Moved by the poverty in Curacao, Heineken changed their bottles to build homes for the poor.

I didn’t bring anything home from the gift shop, but I did see several important brand marketing principles in action at The Heineken Experience:

  • Brands tell a story. Throughout the museum, pictures, videos and displays show how the company and its leaders have grown and changed to provide a better experience for customers.
  • Brands have a personality. Heineken is serious about bringing great beer and good times to the whole world. Freddy Heineken, an Advertiser of the Year winner, sums it up by saying “There is always something happening around a beer.”
  • Brands deliver value. Heineken is all about quality – great beer is a perfect match for good friends and good times. They still focus on the perfect yeast, as well as brewing and bottling techniques that keep their beer as fresh as possible.
  • Brands inspire consumers to action. When Alfred Heineken was touched by the lack of housing for poor families in Curacao, he created a special brick-shaped bottle that could be re-used to build houses. Consumers were going to buy beer anyway, and Heineken inspired them to do something more with their purchase. Aside from philanthropic causes, now that I’ve seen the Heineken experience and have an appreciation for how it’s made, I’m likely to order one next time I belly up to bar wherever my travels take me next.

Big Branding for Small Businesses

I can’t think of a small business that has a big enough marketing budget to do what Heineken did – take an expensive piece of property in downtown Amsterdam, halt brewing operations, renovate the building, and invest millions in setting up an interactive museum. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t tell the story of your brand. You could:

The Heineken Wobo wall, made from the interlocking brick-shaped World Bottle to build homes for the poor in Curacao. Build your own Wobo Wall – use the walls of your own offices to tell the story of your brand.

  • Write a history of your company(or have a company like Bookhouse Group write it for you) and give the book to your customers, employees and prospects as a gift
  • In the lobby or halls of your offices, hang pictures or play videos depicting your history and what makes your company or product unique. Be sure to show off those displays during new employee orientations and customer tours.
  • Get involved in some cause bigger than you are. Heineken made specially shaped bottles for building houses, but you could make a special label for your product and share a portion of proceeds with a charitable organization.
  • Educate your customers. Give out samples, have trained employees show your customers how to use your product or hold conferences to let your customers share knowledge about your product amongst themselves.

How else are you giving your customers a brand experience? Leave a comment and share your ideas!


* Note: The image of the Wobo Wall above was featured in a Fast Company design blog by Mark Wilson on May 31, 2013. Check it our for a new perspective on the bottle and the Wobo project.



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