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Heineken’s Big Bet to Restore Red Stripe’s Former Glory Is… a Rum RTD?

In April, Heineken launched two new products into the increasingly crowded spirits-based RTD market. “Red Stripe Rum Drinks are all about attitude and high energy,” read the press release announcing the arrival of a canned Mojito and a Rum Punch in the Florida market, with additional states to follow.

Among younger consumers, the Red Stripe brand likely doesn’t register one way or another. If they’ve heard of it — and that’s decidedly an “if” — they probably know it as the beer in the squatty brown bottle found most typically on the menus of Caribbean-themed bars and jerk chicken joints. But for people of a certain age, Red Stripe almost certainly triggers a sense of familiarity if not outright nostalgia.

For nearly a decade at the turn of the millennium, Red Stripe Jamaican Lager was everywhere. Its extensive marketing touched everything from mainstream concerts and sporting events to dancehall competitions and underground music festivals. The brand leaned hard into its authentic Jamaican origins, crafting an iconic television ad campaign around the cheeky antics of the “Red Stripe Ambassador,” a cheerful champion of feel-good philosophy who encouraged viewers to celebrate both life and lager (the simple but effective tagline: “Hooray Beer!”). Beer drinkers knew Red Stripe, but so did even the most passive consumers of popular media.

And then, abruptly, Red Stripe faded from view. In late 2010, the Ambassador sent his last tweet. Around the same time, the splashy event sponsorships slowed and the TV ads ceased. Though Red Stripe Lager remains the No. 1 Caribbean import in the U.S., the brand vacated the place it spent 10 years carving out within the popular consciousness, leaving anyone paying attention to Red Stripe’s April RTD launch to wonder: Where did Red Stripe go? And is a line of “high energy” rum-based RTDs — drinks that don’t even contain Jamaican rum — the way to bring it back?

Hooray Beer!

Red Stripe Jamaican Lager didn’t start its life as a particularly Jamaican beer, or even as a lager. The original beer produced by British entrepreneurs Thomas Hargreaves Geddes and Eugene Desnoes from a brewery in downtown Kingston in the mid-1920s was a robust British ale designed to suit the tastes of an imperial English gentleman. That style did not resonate with the island’s locals or its climate, however, and by 1938 Desnoes and Geddes Limited — now run by the sons of its founders — began instead producing a much lighter golden lager.

Desnoes and Geddes obtained both the recipe and the name for their new lager from a recently shuttered brewery in Galena, Ill., that — according to the local lore — had brewed its Red Stripe lager (as well as White Stripe and Blue Stripe lagers) for nearly a decade before the brewery succumbed to the financial pressures of the Great Depression. This new Jamaican Red Stripe lager was well received on the island, gaining renown among U.S. and Canadian troops stationed there during WWII and garnering another boost in profile upon Jamaican independence in 1962. By the 1970s, Red Stripe had made its way into the U.K. market where it was brewed under license. Around the same time, Desnoes and Geddes got into contract brewing itself, producing and bottling brands like Guinness and Heineken for the Caribbean market.

Those relationships set Red Stripe on its path to global brand visibility. In 1993, Guinness bought a majority stake in Desnoes and Geddes, providing Red Stripe with the distribution network and backing of a globally recognized beer brand. When Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form beverage giant Diageo in 1997, Red Stripe’s avenues for growth expanded yet again. By the turn of the millennium, the easy-drinking lager in the distinctive stubby brown bottle had found a small but growing toehold in export markets around the world, and Diageo was ready to see what the brand could do with an assist from a concentrated marketing push.

“Diageo asked us to create a campaign for Red Stripe using a strategy that they [Diageo] had developed,” says Gerry Graf, who was an executive creative director at storied NYC advertising firm BBDO at the time (he’s now the co-founder and chief creative officer at creative agency SlapGlobal). “Their strategy was ‘Red Stripe brings out the inner you.’ We thought this was very generic. We wanted to create a campaign that only Red Stripe could do.”

Red Stripe’s Jamaican-ness was its greatest and most differentiating brand equity, and Graf and his team wanted to lean into it in a way that avoided tropes and stereotypes associated with the island nation. No dreadlocked Rastafarians. No sweeping visuals of pristine tourist beaches. No reggae. (OK, a little bit of reggae, deployed judiciously.) They developed the idea of a spokesperson for the brand who could communicate Red Stripe’s authenticity without resorting to the obvious.

Borrowing an aesthetic from a picture they discovered while researching some of the brand’s previous marketing, they dressed him in a suit draped with a bright red sash, intentionally casting a musician with no professional acting experience to play the part. “We made sure we didn’t hire an actor,” Graf says. “We felt like all the Bud and Bud Light advertising was very slick, and wanted to do the opposite of that, unpolished.”

Rather than extolling the virtues of Red Stripe beer over other lagers — and Graf candidly admits it’s not exactly the world’s best lager beer — this Red Stripe Ambassador would celebrate the simple act of having and enjoying a beer, full stop. Gratitude, irreverence, and an unwavering optimism became the Ambassador’s stock-in-trade. “We thought it was a very Jamaican attitude,” Graf says. “Who cares whether it’s good or not, it’s still beer. That’s where the tagline came from: Hooray Beer!”

Punching Above Its Weight

Debuting in 2001, the Red Stripe Ambassador spent nearly a decade dispensing a unique blend of often-impertinent humor and life-affirming pearls of wisdom to TV audiences (North American sports fans may remember him as a fixture between segments of popular ESPN shows like “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn”). The Ambassador didn’t bother much with scantily clad women or debates over which beer has the choicest hops or the “coldest” taste, nor did Red Stripe lean heavily on celebrity endorsements (though the Ambassador did at one point challenge boxer Lennox Lewis to a friendly bout). Some ads didn’t even feature a single bottle of beer.

“I knew it would be successful because at the time very few beer brands were doing anything new or original,” Graf says. “Budweiser was doing really boring stuff. Bud Light was OK, but doing broadly funny stuff. We felt we could make Red Stripe the cooler, edgier choice.”

Red Stripe matched the Ambassador’s energy via copious event tie-ins, sponsoring a surf competition here and an underground music festival there. At one point it was the official beer for several Cricket World Cup events. It worked to position itself as “the beer of bands,” building upon previous unofficial endorsements from bands like The Clash and Oasis, whose members had been known to occasionally crack open a Red Stripe lager (like its stubby brown bottles, the brand’s bright white cans bisected by a diagonal stripe of fire engine red are instantly recognizable). By the mid-2000s, Red Stripe was exporting more beer than it was selling domestically and had cemented its place as the number one Caribbean import beer in the U.S. (and a top 20 import overall).

Then, starting in 2010, Red Stripe went increasingly quiet. There are plenty of reasons why a seemingly successful beer brand might fall off the radar, says Dave Williams, vice president of insight and analytics at Bump Williams Consulting. For one, a complete meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 left companies large and small circling the wagons around their balance sheets. But just as likely, evolving priorities within Diageo led to attention — and budgets — shifting elsewhere. An exploding number of microbreweries was already pressuring Big Beer to rethink its strategies at that time. And though their boom days were still a few years off, better-known Mexican lager brands persistently threatened to steal focus from other imports.

“A lot of the big names in beer have been in a slow and steady decline,” Williams says. “If you look in the U.S. import space in particular, just think about how far the spotlight has swung toward Mexico.”

Meanwhile, Graf says, the Ambassador and his “Hooray Beer!” campaign had been successful enough at selling cases of Red Stripe that its principal champions within Diageo had long since been promoted and moved on to work on other brands, leaving no one to fight for Red Stripe internally.

Whatever the particulars, Red Stripe’s parent shifted focus away from its Jamaican lager to the point that in 2012 it moved production of North America’s Red Stripe inventory to breweries located in the U.S. and Canada.

In 2015, Heineken bought Red Stripe from Diageo for $780 million, pledging at the time to restore Red Stripe’s global competitiveness if not its place within the popular consciousness. Red Stripe’s new owners returned production to Jamaica in 2016 and invested $16 million in additional production capacity dedicated to export markets. “It’s not like this brand has shrunk to absolute obscurity, but share of mind and focus have certainly waned since its heyday,” Williams says. According to Bump Williams data, Red Stripe remains the No. 1 U.S. import beer from the Caribbean region. But among all U.S. import beers, Red Stripe has continued to cede share since the Heineken takeover, dropping out of the top 20 U.S. imports and barely clinging to a position within the top 30.

Jamaican Lager to ‘Caribbean Rum’

Pivoting the Red Stripe brand into spirit-based RTDs could prove a shrewd maneuver by Heineken. Canned cocktails make up one of beverage alcohol’s hottest growth categories in the U.S. A 2022 IWSR report projects the market volume of spirits-based RTDs in the U.S. will grow by a third by 2025, fueled by proliferating product options and a consumer perception that spirits-based canned cocktails offer greater quality than malt-based cocktails and seltzer drinks. It also creates an opportunity for Red Stripe to gain entrée with younger consumers who entered their drinking years long after Red Stripe and the Ambassador departed the mainstream.

“With the launch of the Rum Drinks we’ll be recruiting new consumers in higher energy occasions while increasing total awareness and adoption for brand Red Stripe, including Lager.” Heineken USA senior vice president and chief marketing officer Jonnie Cahill tells VinePair via email. “Our primary focus is making this happen by being authentic and proud of our roots in everything we do. Growing lager continues to be a high-level priority for Red Stripe.”

The notion that a successful launch of Red Stripe Rum Drinks might create some renewed momentum behind the Red Stripe name — and thus behind Red Stripe Lager — isn’t completely irrational, Williams says. Within the fast-growing spirits-based RTD category, the rum-based RTD space is relatively uncrowded, offering some white space where a brand with pre-established “island vibe” credibility could potentially thrive.

“The Red Stripe name has some cachet,” Williams says. “It’s directly associated with Jamaica, and Jamaican rum is obviously a well-known category in and of itself. So there are some common conceptual overlaps that make sense.”

But for a brand whose popularity peaked when it leaned hard into its authenticity, it seems conspicuous that Red Stripe Rum Drinks don’t actually contain Jamaican rum, but rum of indeterminate Caribbean origin. And while a Rum Punch fits squarely enough within Red Stripe’s Jamaican profile, the inclusion of a decidedly Cuban Mojito in the product line seems to further signal the degree to which the Red Stripe of yesteryear has strayed from its roots. (Fun fact: Ting — the tart Jamaican grapefruit soda that makes up the bulk of the ubiquitous Jamaican party drink Rum and Ting — was created in the 1970s by none other than Red Stripe brewer Desnoes and Geddes. Just sayin’.)

Moreover, for those old enough to remember the Ambassador’s aura of easygoing, take-life-as-it-comes nonchalance, the idea of a new Red Stripe brand reoriented around “attitude and high energy” also feels a bit jarring. Maybe that’s just tired nostalgia talking, but given all the middlebrow, pandering (and, these days, politically polarizing) beverage marketing relentlessly pumped into the atmosphere, the simple celebration of beer for beer’s sake wasn’t just a differentiator for Red Stripe. It was a much-needed respite.

“I’ve worked on FedEx, Skittles, Snickers, Nike, a lot of great brands,” Graf says. “But I always say “Hooray Beer!” is the greatest tag line I’ve ever written.”

The article Heineken’s Big Bet to Restore Red Stripe’s Former Glory Is… a Rum RTD? appeared first on VinePair.

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