Carlsberg admits it probably isn’t the best beer in the world as it renews the brand and the brew

Let’s set the scene

It’s no secret that the lager market is seriously struggling. The trend amongst young people to drink less is growing, which means people are abandoning the category in droves.

This is a result of changing consumer trends: people are drinking less, but when they do, they are opting for premium craft beers, which encourages drinks to sample more complex tastes; and because people are drinking less, pubs are shutting down.

Above all, standard larger is taking the biggest hit as it fails to shrug off the perception of being mass produced and poor quality.

Vice-president of marketing at Carlsberg UK, Liam Newton said in an interview: “When I see these brands like Foster’s, Carling and Carlsberg, I see them in an old man’s pub. That for me is a good example of the world moving on but this category not moving on; it feels a bit rusty, a bit dated. The quality of the beers here feel low-quality; cheap and cheerful kinds of brands and brews.”

These “old man pubs” are the cornerstone of standard lager, but their popularity is dwindling quickly.  According to government figures, a quarter of pubs have closed in the UK since 2001. To survive, the pubs that are left are trying to capitalise on the craze of premium brands by stocking world and craft larger, which means standard larger is being sidelined.

The occasions are evolving too. A trip to your local for a mid-week Fosters is being replaced by drinking at special occasions, which lends itself to a more exciting selection of drinks.

Paul Bolton, senior client manager at CGA, a research consultancy focused on the drinks market, explains: “Consumers are looking for more premium experiences as people are going out less but want to spend more [when they do].

“That means [the on-trade] has to find brands that reflect that. This is why world lager brands have performed better whereas standard has suffered because they’ve been replaced by a more premium product.”

GlobalData finds a quarter (27%) of drinkers are interested in – and actively buy – craft-style alcoholic drinks. Significantly, an additional 34% are interested but not yet buying such products.

This is reflected in sales. In the three years to the end of March 2018, total volume sales of lager dropped by 5.8%, according to CGA, while total value sales were up 5.5% – showing customers are increasingly turning to more premium products.

However, Bolton is clear the importance of standard lager in the UK shouldn’t be underestimated, with draft standard lager making up 61% of volume sales and 53% of value sales of the total lager market.

Evidently, mainstream lager still has a very prominent standing in the trade, and despite the excitement of craft and premium beers this shouldn’t be forgotten, the category still retains a lot of worth in the drinking culture and brewing industry of Great Britain.

Lager brands might still be significant, but they are seeing a widespread drop in sales, which has seen a number of high-profile brands invest in new marketing strategies to try and boost sales and change people’s opinions.

The most recent, and arguably most distinguished, is Carlsberg. The UK team is relaunching the brand to recruit more premium-focused customers.


For 40 years Carlsberg promoted itself as “Probably the best lager in the world”, the offbeat wording resonated with many, and the ads with Orson Welles doing the voiceover defined premium beer drinking for a generation.

However, there was one small problem with this positioning: the brewery singularly failed to deliver on this promise, especially in more recent years.

Eventually, the slogan was changed to the slightly anaemic, but straightforward “That calls for a Carlsberg”. But when there is something fundamentally wrong with a product and a brands heritage is so closely intertwined in consumer consciousness, such blunt acts of repositioning rarely work.

So, Carlsberg is taking a chance.

The brand refresh involves new packaging, taps and glassware, as well as a completely new brew with an improved formula. To cement this step change, it has changed its name to Carlsberg Danish Pilsner to play up its international heritage.

To get these changes noticed, it has launched a marketing campaign that inverts the brand’s iconic tagline, admitting it was “probably not” the best beer in the world and how it is changing that. It’s a brave move from the brand, which admits it “lost its way” in a focus on quantity over quality. The new slogan “Probably not the best beer in the world” gives a nod to its heritage whilst signalling a much-needed repositioning.

Carlsberg kicked off marketing activity for its new lager with a ‘disruptive’ social campaign which tackles criticism of its beer head on.

It all started at the beginning of April when Carlsberg started picking up and sharing organic tweets about the beer, but the tone of the tweets seemed off; Carlsberg was seemingly dedicated to finding the very worst comments about its beer possible.

Examples include:

  • Carlsberg tastes like “naan bread” – Jamayal Khan from Huddersfield (from 5 years ago)
  • Carlsberg tastes “like stale bread-sticks” – Harleigh from Plymouth
  • Carlsberg is like “drinking the bath water that your Nan died in” – Roy
  • Afterglow85 likened the beer to the “rancid piss of Satan” …

As you can imagine, this bizarre tactic quickly attracted the attention of social media, with users wondering if something had gone wrong, but it transpires that Carlsberg knew exactly what it was doing.

Carlsberg then posted a social video series created by Fold7, featuring Carlsberg employees reading the ‘colourful’ things Twitter users said about the beer. The videos show staff working in every department from the brew house to the financial floor responding with shock and bewilderment to the tweets.

This imitates a segment on the hit US show Jimmy Kimmel Live called ‘mean tweets’, in which guests of the show read out the horrible things people say about them online. Comments in the video include: ‘tastes like a urinal cube that has been in the trough for a week’ and ‘tastes like a puddle of fetid camel’s piss’, and so on …

On Twitter, Carlsberg UK’s has started to respond to the criticism, encouraging people to try the new brew and let it know their thoughts. It marks a move to disrupt the beer market and start conversations. This is only the start of a wider marketing campaign which will include outdoor ads that admit it is ‘probably not the best beer in the world, so we’ve changed it’, and a TV campaign running from the end of May featuring brand ambassador Mads Mikkelsen which will pander more to its Danish heritage. The goal is to get people to try the new beer, which according to research is favoured by 59% of lager drinkers over other mainstream lagers.

Newton said that in a world where people are cynical about brand relaunches, the series of films acknowledge that the beer didn’t live up to people’s expectations, we are accepting it, we have moved on, and this is what our new brew is about.”

Will it work?

In trying to forecast how this will play out for Carlsberg, I think this statement from Newton is quite telling:

“We don’t want this to be seen as a traditional FMCG relaunch. We’ve all seen it, and they’re fine, [where the messaging is] ‘new and improved x’, everyone is doing that. This isn’t a ‘new improved Carlsberg’.”

Evidently, this is an approach that is completely insight driven and guided by solid strategic thinking. Carlsberg’s marketing team should be commended; rather than promising to change, they’re trying to remind customers of what they used to like about the brand.

It was all a bit ironic having a strapline that claims superiority for a product that needed serious revisions. In turn, this exposes the brilliancy of making this misplaced confidence the foundation for your new campaign and product reboot.

Moreover, the astonishing engagement they have managed to generate will almost certainly transgress to conversations down the pub amongst people who have not tried a Carlsberg in years and who want to wax lyrical about the witticism of the campaign, the old taste of the renowned Danish beer and its new formula. Cultural relevancy and on-brand discussions such as these constitute Marketing Utopia.

Above all though, why I predict this will be a campaign to watch; it’s brave.

Not in the brand purpose ‘saving-the-world-one-plastic-bag-at-a-time-for-the-children’ way. In the fake-humble world of marketing that we find ourselves in, the only brave businesses and brands are those who dare to highlight what a load of rubbish brand purpose actually is.

Pointing fun at yourself and using that as a springboard for your rebrand is incredibly bold and risky.  But it has to be just that to stand a chance of actually working; of course, this does not guarantee a victory, but without it, you might as well not bother.

They could have opted for a campaign that harks on about how Carlsberg brings people together and the beauty of shared occasions, which would have been a complete waste of time.

Instead, Carlsberg caused a commotion and it deserves praise because, like all unexpected marketing events, it has been planned out meticulously.

Now, of course, the new beer might still taste like piss, in which case the campaign will catalyse its quick decline. But suppose for a moment that Carlsberg did actually improve the beer … with a great bit of marketing behind it, this could help the brand achieve a complete 180. Probably the best new ad campaign of the year.

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