Piss to Pilsner: Carlsberg UK marketer explains the lager's self-effacing rebirth

Piss to Pilsner: Carlsberg UK marketing VP explains the lager's self-effacing rebirth

Conspiracy theories and confusion reigned as one of the nation's best-selling beers started promoting social media posts comparing its own lager recipe to 'piss'.

But for Carlsberg this was not a "marketing fail" at the hands of a rogue intern or misbehaving AI, but all part of the masterplan to revive a product that had "lost its way".

Liam Newton, vice president of marketing at Carlsberg UK, talked The Drum through a "nerve-wracking" week relaunching Carlsberg as a quality Danish pilsner. “It's been fascinating to watch the campaign unravel over the last week," he says. "But in the end, it was all good."

The 'Mean Tweets' campaign sparked intrigue when the brand began paid promotion on genuine consumer tweets ridiculing its beer. Insults it shared included likening the beer to “the rancid piss of Satan,” “cat piss,” “naan bread,” “stale breadsticks” and a dead grandmother's bathwater.

Taking a leaf out of KFC UK’s fries relaunch playbook, Carlsberg roasted its own beer. This act of self-destruction was so compelling the British public could not look away – and Carlsberg's campaign was arguably even riskier than KFC's. Without fries, the fast food chain still offers southern fried chicken; without lager, Carlsberg offers nothing.

Summing up an unconventional campaign, Newton says: “It was nerve-wracking; you don't know necessarily know how a ‘piss tweet’ is going to land. But we had more than 1.1 million views on the Mean Tweets films in the first 24 hours.”

In this instance, a promoted tweet definitely did not equal an endorsement of the views. “These were not things that we would say about our beer – we would never have brewed a beer that we believed was bad.”

That may not be how it looked to the public however.

Piss to Pilsner

The 'piss' play stood in stark contrast to ‘The Danish Way’, a £15m campaign to take the brand upmarket starring actor Mads Mikkelsen and bearing the trademark payoff: "Probably the best beer in the world". In Mean Tweets, Carlsberg admitted it was ‘Probably [not] the best beer in the world’ after all. But it plans to be.

Agency partners Fold7, Clifford French and Initiative helped kickstart the £20m campaign that subverts the famous Probably line that’s been in circulation since the 70s. In replacing the old Carlsberg formulation with Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, beerheads were promised a product that has been “completely rebrewed from head to hop for a crisper, fuller flavour”.

The second step of the campaign saw Carlsberg adapt Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘Celebs Reading Mean Tweets’ format, showing “heartbroken” brewers facing harsh consumer feedback. In a press release, Carlsberg laid out its intent. “By acknowledging the 'truth' about the quality of Carlsberg in the UK to date, the brewer hopes to challenge a generation of drinkers to re-appraise and re-trial Carlsberg.”

Changing tastes and more discerning drinking habits have prompted the rethink, according to Newton. He points out that there are 1.6 million fewer people in the mainstream lager segment in the UK than there were five years ago and cites research claiming that 41% of Brits are trying to drink less.

And then there’s the craft beer phenomenon best epitomised by BrewDog, whose co-founder James Watt has accused Carlsberg of stealing its mean tweets stunt. This might be a keen indication of who the new brew will feud with. BrewDog itself is pushing beyond beer and into spirits, another sign of evolution among the brewers.

Newton says: “Whether its people doing dry January, cutting back or going out less for financial reasons, there is a dynamic at play.” The mass market’s going to continue taking a hit, and some mainstream beer makers have been squabbling among themselves. Newton claims people are still prepared to pay for quality, however. So the brand is repositioning for an era where many consumers are having less, but better (ie more expensive) beer.

The taste test

Before, there was a perception issue with the Carlsberg brand. For one thing, the UK public had trouble differentiating all of the mainstream lagers, says Newton. “Our research even found that some people even thought it was all made in the same place because they think they taste the same.”

This explains the micturated marketing campaign.

“We don't believe the beer was ever bad," insists Newton. “It was a product perception issue rather than a real product issue. Whenever we put Carlsberg into blind taste tests in the past, it actually performed relatively well. But when people tasted it branded, their perception of the beer always dropped. Other brands, even when the brew isn't so good, the perception of quality often went up.”

Carlsberg was “absolutely fine” then – but it wasn’t the best. There was a chasm between what it was advertising and what it was delivering in the hearts, minds and livers of the public.

“The issue was that it wasn’t the best within that competitive set. Whether it's the Carling or Fosters, or even Amstel, we're trying to genuinely be the best within that competitive set. We're going to live by the words 'probably the best'. We don't live in a world anymore where you can just say these things and have people believe them.”

The ads were landing but is possible the brand was damaging the perception of the beer's taste. It may be no coincidence that in 2017, as this campaign was in the works, the brand dropped its sponsorship of the English national football team after 22 years. Away fans smuggling warm cans in backpacks onto buses for generations of on-pitch letdowns may have helped shaped negative taste connotations. On the other hand, the sponsorship would have been too costly to justify.

Nonetheless, Newton says Carlsberg had to "pause and reflect".

"People always talk very positively about our ads, but it tends to be ‘lovely advertising, but still wouldn't drink the beer’.

“We’d lost our way by focusing on quantity more than quality. We'd almost allowed ourselves to become the cheapest beer on the bar or supermarket as a point of difference. Pursuing a strategy of trying to be the biggest and losing sight of being the best. You can't just say it, you have to do it – this is not just a marketing makeover."

Sampling the Pilsner

Newton proudly lists off all of the UK press that covered the relaunch. There may have been one or two regionals or blogs that passed on the story. The hope is that the coverage and marketing delivers a strong enough call to action to get "people trying the brew - and hopefully liking it”.

The Pilsner will appear this summer at live events like Glastonbury and will be available in on and off-trade locations too. Social media critics may hear from the brand, with offerings of a free sample too. Madds Mikkelsen is working on a new TV spot, where viewers will learn more about The Danish Way. Out of home and digital advertising will use geo-targeting to direct the public to sites where they can get a taste for the new brew.

This is all in aid of the differentiation that will carve out a new customer base for the brand – it hopes.

Newton issues a warning for the future of the category.

“All of the mainstream lager brands continue to act in the same way. You can see where that's going – the mainstream segment of the market is declining because it's not evolving.

“We had to do something very bold and radical in order to shift the dial. Everything from rebrewing the beer, the new glassware, removing the plastic and creating a disruptive marketing campaign. It's all linked to signal that we're different from the other guys.

Ultimately, sales figures will best illustrate whether Carlsberg has salted the earth or created fervent soil for growth. Many may still say the campaign was ‘Probably’ just Carlsberg ‘pissing’ into the wind.

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