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History. Culture. And A Blueprint For Total Market Domination: Nigeria's Finest Marketing Execution

An iconic rising sun. The infamous yellow, green and red combination. An association with a beloved statesman. A product name saluting a revered figure in Igbo history. And a decision to sell only in a region where the aforementioned truly mean something.

Hero Lager Beer is a masterclass in the execution of the fundamental principles of marketing and the most ruthless execution of brand strategy out of Nigeria till date.

At the zenith of its popularity, Hero Lager Beer seized a region and held its players to ransom. And by the time the big dogs stemmed the haemorrhage, they had surrendered significant market share.

SABMiller, the team behind the brand understood the importance of triggering two critical components of the Nigerian consumer buying decision: Price and Association. There are only a few places in the world where price plays a more prominent role in the consumer buying decision than in Nigeria. Perhaps this is due to a scarcity mentality imbued in the average Nigerian from birth; or that the country--despite its very vast resources-- somehow languishes at the top of every list of the world's poorest countries.

So how do you get arguably the most money-conscious bunch truly hooked on a product? You offer it to them at a ‘ridiculous’ price. Or give them a reason to justify the amount being paid.

Hero Lager gave them both.

First, they created a premium quality beer, fine enough to rival any in its category, reinforcing the school of thought that great marketing always starts with a stellar product. Next, they defined that beer using the cultural heritage, values, history and emotions of the very same people they intended to serve. So that it became intrinsically more than a product: it became a dream, a pride, an ideology that was bigger than the contents of the bottle.

At the time the beer was introduced to the market in 2012, the Nigerian consumer was starting to experience a decline in spending power thanks in no small part to the country's gross mismanagement of its resources. And this decline would only get worse as the years rolled by — something the team at SABMiller had foreseen and factored into their strategy.

Despite its premium content, the pressure of failed government policies and unforgiving FX rates on the market, SABMiller would sell this brilliantly packaged beer at rock bottom price. Starting at N150 at retail — much less than the price of competing brands in its category.

It was a resounding message for the boardroom executive in Independence Layout, Enugu, to the roadside trader in Upper Iweka, Onitsha: This is a beer made especially for you. Let it remind you of your proud heritage. Of the quality of the Igbo stock. And the dreams of a people. Let it fuel your desires for growth and prosperity. Let it be the bond that joins you and your brothers. And let it remind you of your roots every time you open a bottle.

It sold.

Oh Mpah’. It sold. Like a raging fire roaring through a humid forest on a midsummer afternoon, it ate up the Eastern communities and conscripted all its path to market domination. From the heart of its brewery in Onitsha to the quieter suburbs of Ikom -- Hero Lager Beer turned every consumer, every retailer and every distributor into a walking brand advocate.

Nigerian Breweries would acquire Life Beer to stop SABMiller’s charge, confidence and growth in the country — fueled of course by the rampaging Hero Lager. And for the first few years, both brands didn’t compete in the sport- let alone the same league. ‘Oh mpah’ as its fondly called-- meaning 'Oh Father' in the Igbo dialect-- was miles ahead.

The beer was the clear victor in every category and any metric being measured. Sadly, what the Hero team had in finesse and branding, they lacked in sales experience and tactical know-how to press home their advantage.

It was the one imperfection in an otherwise flawless masterplan. The one loophole that would let Nigerian Breweries back in and retake control of the region.

It is often debated among marketing professionals familiar with the brand that perhaps if the roles had been reversed and Nigerian Breweries had owned Hero Lager, it’s market share in the eastern region would have surged and remained in the 90th percentile. And no further validation will prove this than the company’s ability to have turned around a failed brand (Life Beer), rehabilitated its image and used its vast resources and relentless promotions to shove it down people’s throats and to the top of their mind.

Nevertheless, Hero Lager remains a mainstay at retail with a respectable share of the market. Perhaps its later stagnation is the reason one of the most ingenious marketing executions Nigeria has ever seen continues to get little or no attention.

But it will be fondly remembered that once upon a time, branding was mobilized and sent to war. On its way, it teamed up with customer insight and together they left in their wake, a trail of destruction and a blueprint for total market domination.

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