Heineken 0.0 launch has put the brewer on the back foot in Malaysia

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Heineken 0.0 was launched in Malaysia in June. Pic: Heineken Malaysia
Heineken 0.0 was launched in Malaysia in June. Pic: Heineken Malaysia

Related tags: Heineken, Malaysia

One might think that a simple inquiry to a major brewery would be warmly welcomed, especially when it is about one of their recently released products. But it's not that straight-forward when it comes to Heineken's 0.0 launch in Malaysia.

If there’s one thing PRs like talking about, it’s their new launches. And they particularly enjoy discussing these when it is a publication that has approached them, saving them from going to the trouble of making a pitch.

Not so much, though, when the query concerns a brand that appears to have been misunderstood from the off, with the weeks since its release taking on a political tinge. This is commonplace, of course, in Malaysia, where just about anything ends up on a religious pedestal at some point.

Primed for success - or a political hot potato?

BeverageDaily had casually asked a Heineken representative if they would like to talk about the 0.0 brand three months after it had launched in the country. But the request was politely knocked back, the PR pointing out that the brand had found itself sailing in choppy waters.

Its global tagline, “Now you can​”, had prompted some religious types to interpret the message as an assault on the piety of teetotal Muslims. “Now you can finally drink beer​,” they had imagined it to mean.

The rep said the brewer had to be very careful now in managing coverage of the zero-alcohol beer. Right from its launch they appear to have been put on the back foot.

There had been much fanfare at first, with 0.0 being the centre of a massive PR and marketing blitz when Malaysia followed Singapore, Thailand and 36 other countries in selling the brew.

In its launch coverage in June, led by a press round with Heineken Malaysia’s managing director, Roland Bala, Heineken Malaysia had hardly put a foot wrong.

We are selective of the innovations that are relevant to Malaysia and believe that Heineken 0.0 is primed for success​,” he told reporters.

We are introducing Heineken 0.0 to give our consumers a new option, so that they can stay in control while having fun, and we look forward to the support of Malaysian consumers​.”

A culturally sensitive business

Perhaps Bala’s only misstep had not been to drill home even more strongly the fact that the zero-alcohol beer was not aimed at the 60% or so of the Malaysian population who are Muslim. Somewhere between the early announcement and then a raft of clarifications three weeks later, it appears Heineken had ruffled some influential feathers.

In July, the minister for religious affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a member of the Islamist party, Amanah, had been driven to announce that beer manufacturers in Malaysia might confuse Muslim consumers by producing alcohol-free drinks.

"Using the name ‘alcohol-free beer’ is confusing as the process of producing the drink including distillation is carried out in the system used to produce alcohol products​,” he was reported as saying by Bernama, the state news agency.

"It would cause confusion as some Muslims thought they could consume the drink​.”

This prompted a response by Heineken insisting it is a “culturally sensitive​” business, and that all its marketing materials for 0.0 carries visible disclaimers that it is strictly for non-Muslim adults.

All Heineken 0.0 products are only available at the non-halal zone of supermarkets and convenience stores, with clear signage indicating that the product is strictly for non-Muslims, aged 21 and above only,​” the brewer said in a statement.

It went on: “In addition, for stores without designated non-halal areas, we are placing clear signages to inform consumers that Heineken 0.0 is strictly for non-Muslims, aged 21 and above​.”

As for the “Now you can​” tagline, Heineken was forced to point out that this referred to how its zero-alcohol brand now allowed non-Muslims to enjoy a beer for lunch, during meetings and before driving.

As a responsible and progressive brewer, Heineken Malaysia is committed to advocating responsible consumption, and we believe Heineken 0.0 has an important role to play in this regard​,” Heineken said.

What could Heineken have done differently? Not much

Alcohol has been seeing increasing attacks by politicians and politically linked figures in Malaysia, where it is illegal for Muslims to drink liquor. In recent years, annual beer festivals have increasingly been banned, while protests against convenience stores that stock alcohol have become commonplace.

In an ad-hoc straw poll, BeverageDaily asked several teetotal Muslims for their opinions on the matter. Each one said political figures had become increasingly keen to present their pious credentials to their supporters, with alcohol being a soft target. None believed Heineken’s approach to the launch had been wrong in any way.

Layla Ismail, a director at a food manufacturer, said she wouldn’t drink Heineken 0.0 because the brand is associated with alcohol, though she would drink zero-alcohol beer from a manufacturer that did not have such a direct link.

For you to put effort into buying a zero-alcohol beer that is associated with that brand’s real beer is unnecessary​,” she said. "It might also be interpreted by others that you are drinking alcohol​.”

Meanwhile, Mira Mustafa, a brand marketer, said Heineken had been right to segregate its 0.0 line away from Muslims in supermarkets.

To have avoided bad press from the launch, she speculated that the brewer might have created a sub-brand through which it could have sold the beverage.

That would have been less offensive than for it to go for the local market and to hold on to the same brand name​.”

Performance and publicity

Meanwhile, it is not yet known how well 0.0 has been performing in the three months since its launch in Malaysia. Heineken’s latest sales report nods at the brand’s launch but does not go into any detail.

Who is to know if the round of clarifications actually enhanced sales through the increased publicity they provided. Most newspapers and online portals have carried details both of the launch and the clarification, while the debate continues to trundle on. Heineken seems to have done the right thing by leaving the matter to fizzle out.

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