Carlsberg is doing things the Danish way, but will UK drinkers buy into its new positioning as a high-quality brand?

At first glance, you would be forgiven for mistaking Carlsberg’s glossy new £15m campaign for a whisky ad. Sleek production, check. Sophisticated worldly gentleman, check. Emphasis on provenance, check.

Focused on the brand’s Danish heritage, the spot is a departure from the beer giant’s former, more irreverent spots, and stars homegrown talent Mads Mikkelsen.

The Casino Royale actor is shown taking viewers on a journey through some of Cophenhagen’s most iconic landmarks like Amalienborg Palace and the Kastrup Sea Baths before ending on the brand’s trademark tagline: ‘Probably the best beer in the world.’

For the beer giant’s marketing controller, Lynsey Woods, the creative marks a “back to basics” approach and a chance to firm up how the lager wants to position itself within the wider UK market.

“We really want to challenge perception of mainstream brands in general. Consumers don’t think that they are interesting, so for us we really want to be the ‘quality lager’,” she says.

In Britain, the standard lager sector has been struggling to retain its fizz in light of the rapid ascent of colourful craft beer and ale alternatives. According to Mintel’s 2015 industry report, just 49% of Brits drank lager in 2015 down from 54% in 2014.

In the same time period, 38% of adults purchased a craft alcoholic drink while 69% bought mainstream brands, underlining how craft has moved from niche to mass market. In the same year Tesco decided to pull Carlsberg from shelves (bar some four-packs which are still available in 200 of its 3376 stores) with some analysts predicting the move could cost the brand up to a whopping £60m per-year.

That calls for a Carlsberg

Amid declining sales and customers opting to ‘trade up’ for more premium buys, Carlsberg’s road to cementing itself as a premium buy to get into shoppers’ baskets is not going to be easy. Woods herself acknowledges that when it comes to mainstream beer the industry is in decline. “No one’s really out there doing anything different,” she muses, “so if we want that to change we’re going to have to do something bold.”

While it’s certainly emboldening, the brand’s latest campaign marks yet another shift in strategy following several years of upheaval. Where competitors have more consistent associations for UK drinkers – Heineken is the modern beer for modern men; Peroni is all about sophistication; Carling is for the everyday man – Carlsberg’s representation has been more nuanced.

In 2011, the company abandoned the ‘probably’ line it had used since the 70s and replaced it with ‘that calls for a Carlsberg’ before reverting to the original again in 2015. Over the past decade or so its message has failed to crystallise what the company stands for, flip-flopping between various cultural inclinations in the UK and internationally.

The early noughties, for example, were all about the ‘If Carlsberg did…’ spots – appealing to football fans and embracing lad culture. By the end of the decade it had developed a slightly broader, and edgier approach projecting its refreshed branding on the side of the White Cliffs of Dover. During this time is also enlisted a ‘man expert’ to appear on radio and sit through tongue-in-cheek interviews explaining why the beer should be seen as a reward for a job well done. In 2015, it re-adopted it’s ‘If Carlsberg did…’ campaign, with creative agency 72andSunny laying claim to the “meme” it had spawned. In the UK market, the brand has worked with its incumbent creative agency Fold7 on projects like a beer dispensing billboard located on the side of Shoreditch’s trendy Old Truman brewery.

Woods doesn’t think the twists and turns the beer purveyor has taken to reach this this point will put customers off buying into Carlsberg long-term. “Our ‘probably’ line never went away in people’s minds so that brand equity is really strong,” she asserts, adding that in conversations with UK consumers there is a real “warmth” towards the brand despite the lack of knowledge about its background.

“I think that’s because we’re quite witty and our advertising is usually fun; that sense of humour is something UK consumers really appreciate” she says.

Losing out

Despite having had a strong tone of voice, its clear the brand believes itself to have finally cracked its messaging, with Woods saying her team is seeing the latest campaign as a “re-introduction” into the UK market. And far from being all about a TV slot, the business is expanding ‘The Danish Way’ across a number of touchpoints including a tie-up with Shazam, new on-trade glassware and an owned digital platform on which will host creative content.

What isn’t as clear is how consumers will join up the dots between its relatively low price tag and sophisticated marketing push to turn brand recognition into sales. A cursory search on Morrisons online store shows a four-pack of Carlsberg clocks in £1.99 per litre, whereas prices for lagers typically perceived as premium like Peroni (£4.52) or Kronenbourg 1164 (£2.56) are set higher. Standard, or session, brands like Carling which is also £1.99 or Fosters (£2.06) fall better in-line with the Danish brand’s costings.

According to YouGov data, Carlsberg does rank higher among global consumers when it comes to quality and brand perception, and is seen to provide better value for money than both Carling or Fosters. “However, it is losing out to other brands such as Heineken, Peroni, Beck’s and Kronenbourg 1664 in terms of quality and impression,” says YouGov BrandIndex analyst Michael Stacey. “In the past, Carlsberg has pinned much of its marketing around major sporting events,” he adds, “but whether it can alter its approach to appeal to other audiences remains to be seen.”

When pressed on whether its fresh approach will compromise its commitment to sport, Woods says there are no plans for the brand to move away from its official sponsorship of England’s national football team or its other longstanding relationships with clubs like Liverpool FC. Resistance to departing from the sport makes sense given how trade-oriented its ties with football brands are, meaning a pull away might pave the way for rivals like Carling to step in and replace the beer on the taps in stadiums.

For now the Hygge-heavy positioning will be confined to the UK says Woods. Time will tell whether the brand will reap the fruits of its multi-million investment and focus on quality, probably.

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