Jonnie Cahill: What people don't get is that it's balance. It's not one or the other. It's not this or that. It's not upper or lower. It's not performance or brand. It's all of it, all the time. And you have to be brilliant and insightful, and you have to be disciplined and driven.
Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get smarter and stronger. I'm Greg Stuart, the CEO of nonprofit MMA Global. We have three goals: to change how we think about marketing, to understand the challenges CMOs face, and to unlock the true power that marketing can have. Now, this podcast is not a place for hero worship or how great CMOs are. There's lots of places for that. Instead, we're going to talk about real leadership in marketing and what it takes to drive growth today. Today's guest is Jonnie Cahill, the CMO of Heineken USA. He's been with the company since 2018 and oversees the marketing for some of the world's biggest beer brands, including Heineken, Dos Equis, and Tecate. He also worked on their alcohol-free beer, Heineken 0.0. We'll talk about all of that and also why Jonnie believes that live experiences are super underrated. And he's going to give us what should be really the first commandment of marketing: buy the idea, not the execution.
You can find a full transcript of this interview and more at bettercmos.com. And if you like the podcast, do me a favor and leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you don't like the podcast, email me. Seriously, I'm firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you.
But now, let's get to my conversation with Jonnie Cahill.
Jonnie Cahill, great to have you here with us today.
JC: Hi, Greg. Nice to see you again.
GS: Where are you today?
JC: I'm in Greenwich, Connecticut. So happy to be on and looking forward to meeting in person. I always say, Greg, the upside of meeting the CMO of Heineken is when we meet for a beer, it's technically work, right? So we must get that on the books.
GS: Expensing beer is a life strategy. I'd not thought that through before. Okay, good. So obviously from the accent, you're not originally from Connecticut, we're going to guess. I think I knew that, outside of Dublin. But you're probably the most global of all people on the global board that I'm aware of. So what are all the cities you've worked in?
JC: Yeah, you're right, Greg. Home is Dublin, Ireland, so what a fantastic city to grow up in. Started the career there at Diageo, actually, and had the privilege to work on the Guinness brand, which is from the city. And so for an Irish guy working on Guinness, I guess it was like an Italian working on Ferrari.
GS: You never had to pay for anything. You got carried around the streets of Dublin on a carriage of some kind. You were the life of luxury. It had to be.
JC: It was a lot of fun, I must say. I had the privilege to work in the bedroom of Arthur Guinness' home, which was 250 years prior, which puts some pressure on when you're approving a script, when the old boss is actually looking down at you. And managed to move from there through Telefonica into telco, from Diageo to Telefonica, big European telco. I was CMO of O2.
GS: Were you in Madrid for that, then? Were you at headquarters or where'd you work?
JC: I was still in Dublin for that actually.
GS: Okay, Dublin. Okay, got it.
JC: Yeah, and then joined Heineken, and my first posting was to Moscow, Russia. So I spent almost four years there. An amazing experience. Really loved it. Just to be outside your comfort zone and to have to learn to operate differently. Your playbook goes out the window a little bit. And went from there to Amsterdam. And then from Amsterdam to here almost five years ago. So people often say, what's the plan? And I've learned to accept that there probably isn't a plan. You go and you do the best you can and something will pop up. And what a brilliant experience to... I feel very privileged to have lived in the United States and in Russia. When you see what's going on in the world, to have had the privilege to live in both of these places.
GS: I've done a lot of work for the Russians over the years, or at least did in the early days of digital. And listen, there's a real cultural difference there that you've got to learn to adjust to. I mean, not everybody looks at the world in the same way, not everybody acts the same way. It's complicated.
JC: Exactly. And it's everything from the climate. My first day in Russia was January the 13th, which was a strategic error because it was like minus 30 degrees when I arrived. It was a really interesting thing to get to do because the fundamentals of brand building are actually very similar globally, especially when you're lucky enough to be on a global brand like Heineken. Really great winding path, I would say, but have felt very lucky to have lived in all these different places.
GS: Does brand have the same orientation in Russian and to Russians? It's a universal concept. It doesn't deviate by culture per se, except for the nuance of the culture.
JC: The nuance of the culture changes. But if you go, I guess, right back to Marketing 101, what is a brand? It's a collection of values that is a shortcut for people, and that's needed arguably in more complex environments even more. Because if you take, for example, society there, trust is a big issue in corporations, in government, and a brand is a great way to communicate to people that you can be trusted. And so actually how it shows up might be different and the tone could be different, but the brand and what brands do for you as a business is crucial. And I think I've worked with many other colleagues in multinationals while we were there, whether it was Pepsi or Coke or Michelin. The guy from Greenville, South Carolina was my neighbor, and he was trying to build a Michelin brand, which is about trust and care and performance. And those things were exactly the same whether you were selling Michelin tires in Greenville, South Carolina or in Yekaterinburg. So it was fascinating to see that. And I guess as a marketeer, you're always curious about those things, and I guess living in different countries and different cultures is a very rich experience. Things show up differently, but some things are very fundamental.
GS: We might spend a little time with that trust. I think you're right, essentially you position that dynamic as a part of, in particular, Russia. It's funny, I worked a lot with the Walmart people a lot of years ago, and you always see them as sort of everyday savings. I mean, they have done an amazing job of communicating that value with their thing. What they told me their biggest issue, though, was trust. And you kind of go, "Oh, of course, I have to believe that it's everyday savings in order for that promise to really flow through." I hadn't really thought that through, but that was their big challenge. So I guess that's pretty much true universally.
JC: I can imagine that as well. That's such a compelling proposition. But it's really, if you think about it logically, it's a very high bar because they've inserted the word "everyday." So if you fail once, you break the promise.
GS: And am I going to go out of my way to fulfill on that brand promise that they've made? Because that's what they need. They need me to drive an extra some number of miles to be able to participate there versus maybe a closer alternative, which is what they're up against, right?
JC: Yeah. I think when you commit outwardly to something like that, you create expectation. Now that's a good thing. So for example, if I take our most iconic brand, Heineken. When people see it, they expect a certain standard. If they look over at an event or at an engagement and see us, there's a certain expectation of how it is going to be. And that means you have to deliver against that all the time. You see brands like Amex doing that. You see brands like Mastercard trying to do that. It is really about communicating that promise to people, and they know it. The beauty of owning or having dominance in a position, in a marketing position, makes you very compelling, but you better deliver against that. Because once you break it, it's broken. If Volvos aren't safe, there's going to be a problem.
GS: Yeah, if you set yourself up for failure, if you cross that line, I totally get that. Okay. Listen. So here you were just speaking about events, too. I mean, listen, Heineken's a pretty event-oriented brand, and aren't you in kind of a special season right now at some level? I mean, Formula One's coming up in a couple of different cities in America. Coachella just finished, depending on when people are listening. Soccer's big right now. You're prepping for US Open tennis.
JC: That's right.
GS: Where are you? Where aren't you? How do you look at this time of year for you all? Is this the busiest time of year?
JC: Yeah, you know what? It's the best time of year. I mean, again, to be the CMO of a beer company and a globally iconic beer brand, I mean, you do pinch yourself. And maybe we'll talk about it later, how lucky we are to work on these amazing brands. This brand's 150 years old, and I get to help it and have a tiny fingerprint on it. But yeah, it's peak season. We just got back from Coachella. Next week is Miami Formula One, which around the Hard Rock Stadium, cars doing 220 miles an hour, where we bring Heineken 0.0 very much to the fore. Planning for US Open. We've got the New York Islanders, one of our local partnerships here in the tri-state area, on playoff duty tonight. It is full on. And so I guess it's the most fun time of year. Sure, it's busy and you're kind of burning the candle at both ends. People can't see us. You can see the bags under my eyes right now... Maybe everyone can see that.
GS: You look good, Jon. You're okay.
JC: Again, stop and think, what are we working on at the moment? We just finished Coachella this morning. We just did the final walkthrough for Miami F1, one of the most iconic events you'll see. We're preparing for the Las Vegas Grand Prix, where you're going to see Formula One go down the strip through the city week before Thanksgiving. And it's a crucial part of our strategy as a brand because we have that premium positioning. And the challenge in a premium position brand is you have to do things that justify the premium positioning. And consumers, who we frequently call people, they know what they expect and they know how we should show up. So we're not in the business of plastering our logo on sports events. We have 90-plus percent spontaneous awareness. I don't know who the other people are who don't know us, but they're out there somewhere.
But we are in the business of making things better, and that is the philosophical way that we approach events and partnerships: what can we do to make it better? But you mentioned the US Open, Greg, so you pop in there. We want you to look over, see that red star, and know whatever's happening over there, I'm going. And so that's, again, a high bar, but how much fun is that to get to work on those kind of events? It's busy. I've got an amazing sponsorships team who are experts at just delivering it. One of the things we say in partnerships and sponsorships is strategy will get you and the cloak room will get you. So you have to be clear on what you're doing, but you also have to execute it flawlessly. And that's a challenge.
GS: What does it mean the cloak room will get you? I'm sorry, what does that mean?
JC: If the basics don't work. If the beer's not flowing, if the ice machines aren't working, if you've nowhere to put your coat, if the air conditioning's wrong. You have a massive strategic imperative with sponsorships and you have to deliver at a micro level. One of the marketing disciplines that's most unforgiving because if it goes wrong, it goes wrong at scale.
GS: Yeah. Listen, MMA runs 30 conferences in 14 countries around the world, maybe 15 now actually. But conferences, events are about getting a thousand things right, and you're lucky if you don't miss half of them. I mean, that is the dynamic.
GS: It's a million little details that got to go your way. Hey, Jonnie, I want to get right into just some of your thinking here, but I did want to call out one other thing because I'd seen it and you mentioned it. Heineken 0.0, that actually has been a pretty big success for you guys. I think I saw something like a 30% share against non-alcoholic beer. Is that right? That's amazing.
JC: Yeah. Well around a 25% share in value terms. An amazing success, a beautiful innovation that's been really accretive to the franchise. So it's a very simple strategic premise. I mean, from a corporate perspective, if you think through a value maximization lens, we have breweries, we have sales reps, we have a system, but there are millions of moments when you'd love a beer, but you don't want the alcohol. And that's a different thing.
And so Heineken 0.0 really opens up a huge amount of occasionality. Technology and brewing has enabled us to make a really exceptional beverage, a really exceptional beer. The first thing everyone says when they drink Heineken 0.0 is, "Oh my god, it tastes like beer." And that wasn't always the case in non-alcoholic beers, particularly in the US. And it's a very underdeveloped category in the United States, it's still less than 1% or around 1% of the beer market. If you go to somewhere like Spain, non-alcoholic beer is 16% of the beer market.
GS: Wow, I didn't know that.
JC: So it's an everyday thing. Very underdeveloped here. It's been a remarkable success. It allows us to access occasions and moments that we wouldn't otherwise get to, and it allows us to broaden penetration for the franchise because you might want a Heineken Original on a Friday night, and you might want to Heineken 0.0 on a Monday night. So it's been a terrific success for us.
GS: Was there any challenge to, I don't know, what was the internal discussion on extending the brand to non-alcoholic?
JC: Yeah, it was really, really simple. There's a Heineken family, and we knew that the beer is good enough to put the name over the door and our globally iconic brand, Heineken Original. We simply wouldn't have done Heineken 0.0 if the delivery wasn't good enough, if the beer wasn't good enough. So the conversation was really quick, which is, this is an exceptional beer. Our brewers did some real magic, and we were actually proud to extend the franchise.
GS: Got it.
JC: We're really proud of what we did. And sometimes we get this question: "Yeah, you do that because you have to." We just ran a Super Bowl ad for Heineken 0.0, and people ask us, "Are we serious about non-alcoholic?" I can tell you I'm serious, or I can show you what I did with the Super Bowl where we partnered with Marvel and Antman. You probably want a Heineken 0.0 if you've got to save the world.
GS: You want to be available to save the world.