With sales sagging, Heineken Light gets crafty

Source: Heineken

Heineken is hoping to jump-start sales of its struggling light brand by taking a page out of the craft beer playbook.

The brewery is changing the flavor profile of Heineken Premium Light by adding Cascade hops, one of the most popular craft beer styles. The hops are found in brews such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Steam Liberty Ale.

"What we see and hear a lot about light beer now is consumers have become tired of the taste—the light brands are a little too watery for them and not a rewarding enough experience," said Olga Osminkina, senior brand director at Heineken USA. "Cascade hops are not a familiar addition to a light type of beer, so that's going to put Heineken Light in a different category."

(Read more: Bad buzz for brewers as light beer sales slip)

Heineken Light hopes to differentiate itself as the light beer category finds itself struggling.

Total case sales of light beer, excluding flavored malt beverage, have declined 3.6 percent this year through mid-July compared with the year-earlier period; sales by dollar have declined 2.7, according to Dan Wandel, a beer analyst with the market research firm IRI. (Its data excludes bar and restaurant sales.)

Case sales in the "premium light" category—Heineken Light's niche—are down 2.2 percent year over year.

Heineken Light has fared worse, though. The brand hasn't been able to connect with consumers since its much-hyped debut in 2006, and has slumped significantly of late, according to IRI data.

(Read more: Drink up, beer is healthy says ... Heineken exec)

Heineken Light case sales by dollar sales are down 9.4 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively, this year through mid-July compared with last year, Wandel said.

The brand ranks No. 17 among light beers in dollar sales, according to IRI data.

In addition to the changes inside the bottle, the company hopes that a new look will give Heineken Light a boost. The brewer aims to achieve a more "modern and contemporary" packaging design that will portray the brand as more upscale than competitors.

"We're not really looking at beer as a point of reference, but overall luxury and upscale categories such as spirits and fragrance," said Osminkina. "That's where our inspiration is coming from."

One thing consumers won't see is advertising or packaging pointing out the recipe alteration. Heineken officials are confident they can retain customers who enjoyed the previous taste while attracting new ones without highlighting the flavor evolution.

(Read more: Heineken profits from developing market surge)

Heineken's shift follows similar and successful brand extensions by Anheuser-Busch, which has introduced Bud Light Platinum and Budweiser Black Crown. Both had successful launches built around sleek designs and stronger flavor.

They also have higher alcohol content, a move Heineken will not be making. Heineken Light will continue to have 3.2 percent alcohol by volume and 99 calories.

Osminkina sees the lower alcohol content as another distinguishing mark.

(Read more: New Budweiser brew follows familiar playbook)

"The role of Heineken Light is to extend the Heineken brand ... where today we might not be present with Heineken Lager, which is full of body" but has more alcohol, she said. "Heineken Light is a great choice during a daytime occasion at the poolside, on the rooftop when the party's just getting started and going to go on for quite a bit."

—By CNBC's Tom Rotunno. Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno.