Mark Ritson: Will Carlsberg’s brave new strategy succeed? Probably

Carlsberg has turned its famous strapline on its head to admit it is ‘Probably not the best beer in the world’, a move that recalls its heritage while achieving a much needed repositioning.

Carlsberg 'probably not the best beer in the world'

It started innocuously enough at the beginning of the month. Organic tweets about Carlsberg beer were being picked up and promoted by the Danish brewing company. Nothing special there; more than one marketing genius has attempted to blend the authenticity of organic social media posts with the reach of digital by combining them into a single hybrid campaign.

But it was the tenor of the tweets that Carlsberg selected that struck more than a few people as, well, strange. Rather than promoting the overall wonderfulness of Carlsberg, the brewer seemed intent on finding the very worst comments about its beer and then promoting these messages to all and sundry.

When Jamayal Khan took to Twitter to inform 600 followers in and around Huddersfield that Carlsberg tasted like “naan bread” he was not being complimentary. And he was probably not expecting the brewer to turn up five years later and start promoting his tweet nationally.

Meanwhile, down in Plymouth, Harleigh must have been surprised when her old tweet from a year ago about Carlsberg tasting “like stale bread-sticks” was picked up by the brewer.

Similarly, Roy’s tweet describing the beer as like “drinking the bath water that your Nan died in” was an unlikely one to be promoted. As was that of Afterglow85, who likened the beer to the “rancid piss of Satan”, making the approach by the brewer asking for her permission to re-use the ‘endorsement’ all the more bemusing.

The tactic quickly attracted the attention of social media. Many speculated the unlikely promotional strategy was the action of a disaffected ex-marketer or perhaps a new AI system gone wrong. But it became apparent this week that Carlsberg knew exactly what it was doing.

For 40 years Carlsberg promoted itself as ‘Probably the best lager in the world’. The killer strapline emerged during the evening before a pitch by boutique advertising agency KMP. Agency executive Tony Bodinetz had created some draft scripts to present to Carlsberg’s UK marketing team. But in the hotel the night before the big meeting his business partner David McLaren was unconvinced.

He was worried Bodinetz had gone too far with the slogan ‘The best lager in the world’ and told him so. They argued, went to bed and the next morning Bodinetz appended the word ‘Probably’ to the front of the slogan to appease McLaren.

The rest, as they say in ad land, is history. Carlsberg loved the offbeat wording and eventually employed Orson Welles to deliver a voiceover that became as famous as the slogan itself. Carlsberg’s ads defined premium beer drinking for a generation.

But there was one bijou problem with positioning Carlsberg as probably the best on the planet. The idea might have appealed to consumers. It might also have differentiated the brand from its competitors. But the brewery singularly failed to deliver on this promise, especially in more recent years.

As the beer category premiumised in this country, and as smaller, independent breweries produced a growing number of fantastic lagers and ales, Carlsberg and its outdated claims of superiority became increasingly unlikely and the beer steadily less popular.

READ MORE: Carlsberg admits it probably isn’t the best beer in the world as it overhauls the brand and the brew

Eventually the brewer dropped the slogan and came up with the anemic, but painless ‘That calls for a Carlsberg’. But, as is almost always the case, the brand and its heritage were intertwined far too closely in the consumer consciousness for such blunt acts of repositioning to actually work.

As so many brands have discovered over the years, the ancient tactics of yesteryear – and the hundreds of millions of pounds of investment that have gone into them since their inception – mean heritage is an invaluable asset that should not be changed or underestimated.

So Carlsberg is taking a chance. It is tipping its hat to a heritage that everybody recognises and then riffing on it to reflect the fact that Carlsberg has moved upmarket and, allegedly, improved the taste of its beer. It is now admitting it is ‘Probably not the best beer in the world‘.

The next phase of the campaign features Carlsberg employees reading reviews from customers lambasting the taste of the beer. Alongside that digital campaign comes the new product campaign explaining how and why the Carlsberg team have radically improved the brewery’s best selling pilsner from “head to hop”.

One assumes the brewery will continue to open the throttle in the weeks ahead with more channels and more support for a new, rebrewed Carlsberg. Could there be some TV in the pipes? Methinks so.

Who knows whether it will work, but credit must be given to the Carlsberg marketing team. This feels like a great campaign in its early, formative stages. For starters its clearly an approach that has been born from insight and then honed with solid strategic thinking.

Carlsberg probably not

The Carlsberg team were caught in an unlikely pincer trap of a strapline that boasts superiority for a beer that desperately needed to improve itself. It’s a quietly brilliant move to make that misplaced superiority the basis for the new campaign and product refresh.

On a simpler level the engagement the campaign has already achieved is sensational. That will translate into talk down the pub and all-important trial from customers that have not had a Carlsberg since their nan passed.

Whether the beer will actually pass muster is another question, but over the Easter weekend (Christ is risen, let’s get down the Dog and Duck for a lock-in) there will be an army of semi-arseholed punters pontificating over the merits of the campaign, the old taste of the famed Danish beer and its new formulation. Saliency combined with on-brand discussions in other words. Marketing nirvana.

READ MORE: ‘Tastes like stale breadsticks’: Carlsberg’s ‘disruptive’ Twitter campaign tackles criticism of its beer head on

And I will add something else to the rationale for suspecting this might be a great new campaign. It’s brave.

I don’t mean brave in the usual brand purpose ‘cleaning the world’s toilets one bowl at a time for the children’ way. In the purpose-addled, fake-humble world of marketing these days the only brave people are the ones pointing out what a load of bollocks brand purpose actually is.

I mean that Carlsberg is brave because it has risked everything and gone large on this campaign. Making fun of yourself and then using that platform to revitalise the brand is a hugely risky move.

And yet it has to be bold and risky to have a chance of working. I have been working in America with the Effies organisation on something special for its 50th anniversary later this year, and one of the recurring themes that jumps out of half a century of great advertising is that it has to be brave to work. Bravery does not guarantee success, but without it you might as well go home and burn your marketing budget on the stove.

Carlsberg could have got some moronic marketer to bang on about ‘bringing people together through the miracle of shared occasions’. Or they could have launched some inane product campaign talking about Peruvian hops and crystal streams of Scandic water. And in both instances, and a hundred others, the campaign would have wasted its effort.

Instead, Carlsberg has caused a fuss and it deserves credit because, like all sudden marketing events, it has been long in the planning.

Of course, the new beer might be old bath piss bad too. In which case the success of this campaign will merely speed the decline of Carlsberg. But let’s assume for one golden, optimistic moment that Carlsberg really has made a better beer. It might also have a great bit of marketing on its hands too. Probably the best new ad campaign of the year I’d say.

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Comments
  • Fold7 Creative Advertising Agency 18 Apr 2019 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for your review.
    Probably the best end to a week.
    Fold7 and Team Carlsberg.

  • Al King 19 Apr 2019 at 6:34 am

    This year, Carlsberg celebrates 170 years since its founding, and its new beer Carlsberg Classic is exclusively distributed in Cyprus where I live. Carlsberg Classic is a slightly dark lager with 5% alcohol, which combines a rich, full taste with the trademark easily-potable Carlsberg taste. It’s fucking delicious and I’ve drink bucketloads of it. Why they don’t roll it out globally and get rid of that pilsner piss I have no idea.

  • John Bell 19 Apr 2019 at 7:47 am

    it now comes in a trendy pintsized wineglass and the camden wetherspoons crowd are snarfing it

  • Yan Kotliarsky 20 Apr 2019 at 5:23 pm

    Yes, but, isn’t it too risky? I mean, stating the obvious trying to gain market share? Do you imagine Macdonalds stating “we are a not so healthy for you’ or Toyota saying ‘Always a better way unless you used one of our recalled cars”?

    I do agree on the ‘bringing people together… ‘ bullshit that affected so many marketing departments.

  • Jef Loeb 21 Apr 2019 at 6:44 pm

    This book has been checked out the library, and with good results: in the US, Crispin’s
    “Oh yes we did” campaign for Dominos aired their faults and used that as a basis for promoting new “new & improved’ in a way that didn’t feel like old “new & improved.” Going way back to dusty history, there’s a classic ad from Avis (DDB, I believe) that features a mournful statement from the copywriter about how a recent dirty ashtray in an Avis car undermined his ability to future future Avis advertising. Given all that, not sure I’d characterize this as entirely brave —beyond good case history, it’s simply too easy to pivot away quickly. Plus, the market seems strangely forgetful about marketing and product missteps these days (see, aforementioned, Domino’s recovery). PS: wonder if we’ll someday see brands out there soliciting critiques, as a turnaround platform. “Dear consumer: Please lambaste us online, we’re in need of a fresh ad campaign.’

  • Heather Johnston 22 Apr 2019 at 10:03 am

    Carlsberg used to be what you necked five pints at a time, drinking with the lads after the match, in competition with the other mass-market lagers you could rent down the pub. Fast forward, and the volume is not there, the occasion has shifted, the choice down the supermarket compared to on-tap in the pub is huge even in Lidl , and the pub may well not be there. And let us not forget the recency heuristic. if the last time you drank Carlsberg it tasted like – let’s be polite, very dilute Miracle-Gro, it’ll take more than a clever strapline to make you want to try Grandad’s lager again (he who who smoked like a chimney and had no taste buds). And even more to prize people away from Leffe, Stella Artois, Peroni and the other decent lagers, not to mention craft beers. The high volume, lowest permissible quality game only has one outcome, and that is ever declining volume of sales. Or am I the only one to have studied the Red Barrel case?

  • Chris Bates 23 Apr 2019 at 11:54 am

    Being refreshingly honest might work better if they were consistently honest in all they do as a brewer: Carlsberg Export never being an import product, simply an imported recipe.
    Unless that has recently changed and it is no longer a conceit. Left hand meet right hand…

    Seems like a campaign that will be far more interesting to the marketing industry than drinkers who have moved on in terms of what and how they drink.
    They can now choose from dozens of good, or indeed bang average lower strength lagers, Pilsners and ales . Created by brewers untainted by having to entirely change their product to try and re-attain relevance, after years of stripping most of the value out of the product (ingredients , % ABV etc), meaning its declining core drinkers value something cold, fizzy and wet, over flavour, character and allusion to brewing traditions

    “Probably the best new ad campaign of the year I’d say”…it’s April…and will non- Carlsberg drinkers even notice or care? Will the on-trade, and supermarkets that de-listed it? Will current drinkers find the new product ‘too much’?
    The campaign might have some impact/standout due to its honesty being distinctive, but not be very persuasive in a market of more and ‘probably’ better options

    Saying that, the only place I’ve encountered this campaign is in the marketing press, even after a very sunny pub-centric bank holiday weekend. Has it launched?

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