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

Carlsberg is tackling accusations of poor taste head on with a new campaign, admitting it got “preoccupied with being the biggest rather than the best”.

Carlsberg probably not

Carlsberg is overhauling its namesake beer brand in the UK, changing everything from its taste and packaging to glassware and marketing as it shifts focus from “quantity to quality” in order to “change the way people think about Carlsberg”.

The Carlsberg pilsner has been rebrewed “from head to hop”, while every touchpoint of the brand has been “upgraded”, including a new ‘snap pack’ that reduces its plastic use by 50%. Carlsberg is also launching its “most ambitious and honest” marketing campaign ever in a bid to drive reappraisal.

The campaign sees Carlsberg trade on the equity of its ‘Probably’ slogan but turn it on its head. Created by Fold7, the ads see the brand admit it is “probably not the best beer in the world” and then communicate the updates it has made to change that perception.

Speaking exclusively to Marketing Week, Liam Newton, vice-president of marketing at Carlsberg UK, says: “We want to change the way people think about Carlsberg. We’ve been saying we’re ‘probably the best beer in the world’ since 1973, the issue is recently we’ve not been living up to that.”

Using the brand’s iconic tagline in such a way could be a risk. Some activity on social media, which has seen Carlsberg pay to promote tweets criticising the beer and its taste, has confused consumers with many thinking the company has made a mistake.

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

But Lynsey Woods, Carlsberg UK’s director of marketing, says the brand felt it was crucial to keep the tagline and tackle its issues head on. “We think we’re being quite brave in actually using the line in a way to say we haven’t been living up to that. It is just so iconic, most brands would give their right arm to have it, why would you ever not want to utilise that?”

Despite the risk, Newton says there wasn’t any pushback. “Whether it’s the global team or the local team, we all felt that we had to be bold and direct in what we were doing. There hasn’t been any pushback. We do accept there is a risk with this, it is not a traditional approach. We will only know in six months’ time.”

The changes in the UK have in part been forced by the brand’s underperformance in the market. While it is selling well and in growth elsewhere, in the UK sales are down, although by exactly how much is unclear.

We want to change the way people think about Carlsberg. We’ve been saying we’re ‘probably the best beer in the world’ since 1973, the issue is recently we’ve not been living up to that.

Liam Newton, Carlsberg

Lager sales more generally are also struggling. Carlsberg cites stats that there are 1.6 million fewer beer drinkers than five years ago, which, alongside rising competition from craft, has created a tougher environment for standard lager.

Newton explains: “We believe in the UK we lost our way. We started to focus on the wrong things and perhaps got preoccupied with being the biggest rather than the best.”

He adds: “When I see these brands like Foster’s, Carling and Carlsberg, I see them in an old man’s pub so 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.”

That observation seems to chime with consumer perceptions. According to YouGov BrandIndex, Carlsberg sits 25th in a list of 41 beer and cider beers on its index metric, which is a balance of measures including quality, value, satisfaction ad reputation. On quality it has a score of just 2.6, putting it 31st in the list, while on value it has a score of 3.5, putting it in 16th, although this is ahead of its previous competitive set Foster’s and Carling.

It is also ahead of Foster’s and Carling in terms of consideration, with a score of 9.4 putting it in 16th in the list. However it falls behind these two brands on purchase intent with a score of just 2.

Beers that have moved into a more premium positioning, such as Stella Artois and Peroni, by comparison, are topping the list in terms of both brand metrics and the purchase funnel.

Premiumising the brand

As part of the relaunch, Carlsberg will be increasing prices (these new prices haven’t been disclosed yet) although Newton promises it will still be “affordable”. The aim is to move Carlsberg into what he describes as the “standard plus” market, which includes beers such as Amstel, Coors Light and Bud Light.

“We say premiumisation but we’re not suddenly going to try to be a super niche premium brand,” he says, adding: “The competitors are a combination of the standard and the standard plus brands. It is still Carling and Foster’s, two of the biggest brands in the market. But it is also looking at brands like Amstel, Coors Light, Bud Light within that competitive set.”

Communicating the changes to how the beer is brewed and its taste will be key to convincing consumers the new price point is worth it.

Carlsberg Danish Pilsner

Newton explains: “Ultimately what we’re trying to get people to do is reappraise our beer. That is the start point. We know the brew has fantastic results, that people love the glassware within it, but that’s the key thing is acknowledging that the beer hasn’t been as good as it needed to be… and we’ve changed it for the better.”

He adds: “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’.”

The brand did extensive research both with new customers and existing ones to ensure that it didn’t risk alienating its core drinker.

Woods says: “We wouldn’t take that risk. We did all our testing with new consumers as you would expect but making sure we also tested with our current [customers] and people are more than happy to know that they’re getting an improved quality.

“It has got the DNA of Carlsberg. It’s not like we created something completely from scratch, that would have been madness. It’s taking all the stuff people loved and making the other stuff better.”

Keeping that DNA also meant focusing on Carlsberg’s Danish roots and keeping its brand ambassador Mads Mikkelsen.

Woods explains: “What Denmark represents in the world right now is what we all want to have, which is balance. They’ve got such a great way of being and they’ve got that responsibility for each other and community element that we probably had 50 years ago in the UK.”

Newton adds: “A lot of brands who have authenticity talk about where they’re from. [Denmark] is important part [of the brand], it’s part of where we came from, our company is still based there. It’s a motivating part for us and the consumer.”

Boosting Carlsberg’s appeal among women

Another area where Carlsberg will focus more is on appealing to women. Both Woods and Newton admit lager marketing in the past has been about “lads, pints, football” but is now changing as socialising changes to focus less on quantity and more on the quality of the experience.

“For a long time that standard part of the category hasn’t really spoken to women. But all my mates drink beer, I drink beer. The industry has forgotten that so we have tested everything with women and men equally and that will be a big change for us,” says Woods.

She adds: “When we see advertising that is male, laddy, bloke humour, it just doesn’t feel right anymore, it feels like it belongs to a different time.”

A number of lager brands have spoken about this shift, which is why it feels all the more surprising that Foster’s recently brought back its ‘Good call’ campaign.

READ MORE: Foster’s on why it’s bringing back ‘Good Call’ after a four-year absence

Woods say: “I kind of had my head in my hand this week with all the Foster’s stuff, going back to Dan and Brad, because it’s not what we need. The whole beer industry needs to take a step forward. We don’t want to do that the laddy thing. We want people to be talking about the beer.“

With such a major investment and change to the brand, Carlsberg will be keen to see early signs the strategy is paying off. The hope is the brand will see an uptick in recruitment, market share and distribution but it’s also about reputation.

Woods says: “[It’s about being] in a pub on a Friday night and seeing someone have a pint of Carlsberg and saying ‘that’s a good beer’. Getting the recognition that I think we deserve, I suppose.”