Carlsberg's cautionary tale: Has the beer brand lost its way or just its place on Tesco's shelves?

News hit hard at the end of last week that Carlsberg, one of the nation's 'power' beer brands, was effectively being pulled from the shelves of the nation's biggest grocer.

Apart from a four-pack of lager in only 200 stores, Carlsberg products will no longer be available to Tesco shoppers. Carlsberg isn't the first brand to be culled by 'Drastic Dave' Lewis, the Tesco chief exec: Kingsmill has seen the axe fall on its bread, and a number of high-sugar soft drinks have been taken out of stores. But perhaps it's Carlsberg's former weight as an advertising behemoth that has left the industry agog.

It's a massive blow to a brand that at one point was definitely part of culture through iconic advertising. Those of us significantly over legal drinking age will instantly know the constructs "Carlsberg don't do blog posts, but if they did...", or the more direct [puts on movie-trailer voice] "Probably the best lager in the world." The logo would adorn t-shirts at festivals. It sponsored one of the biggest and most successful sporting institutions in the country, Liverpool FC.

In recent times the brand seems to have found a creative spark, bringing personality into its TV advertising again and adopting a content and PR approach that appears to reveal a real hunger for fame. Stunts like the 'drinkable billboard' and aping the headline-grabbing 'beach body ready' ad were shared through creative circles. A wry smile raised when it was suggested Carlsberg might launch a male grooming range. Perhaps for the first time in a decade, Carlsberg was being talked about.

And surely this is the very definition of modern marketing success, right?

Wrong.

It struck me some months ago that so much of this 'brand behaviour' was schizophrenic – flip-flopping from one thing that was cool to the next. I'm a shopper man, and I always try to crystallise what a brand is doing into: what is it asking me to believe and buy into when I'm making a decision about what brand to put in my basket? Put yourself in the aisle and Carlsberg's competitors are, as a category, doing this pretty well.

Stella Artois: a focus on quality and owning the at-home 'chalice' occasion.

Budweiser: reinventing a 'with food' identity to piggyback on the rise in BBQ food and burgers.

Heineken: leveraging blue-chip sponsorship around Champions League and the Rugby World Cup.

Carling: reconnecting with its heartland, real football fans.

Each of these brands has identified a way to build a cultural perspective that could be carried clearly all the way into store and give shoppers a reason to buy. This would have been a cornerstone of their strategies, and thus exactly what they have been telling all of the grocers in sell-in meetings. Even more specifically, they would probably have been showing Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's how their core campaigns could be uniquely tailored for their stores and shoppers.

There is probably a reason to Tesco's decision that we can't identify looking on from outside, with our noses pushed firmly up to the meeting room door. Perhaps Carlsberg is looking to focus on its on-trade business. Maybe there are margins to maintain, and Tesco won't budge on its base price. Maybe it really is mutual. But I've never met an FMCG marketer who thinks not being in the retailer which still claims nearly 30 per cent of the grocery market share is a good idea.

So what is the lesson? What should we, as bystanders to the Carlsberg delisting, take away and mull on as we plot our plans for 2016 and beyond? In most simple terms, fame is never enough. Simply chasing the latest buzz and hoping this somehow drives shoppers merrily on their way into store to buy in their droves is naive at best.

Great ideas live at the strategic intersection of brand, shopper and retail partner. Fame is still absolutely linked to brand success. But it has to be leveraged to drive preference, and for any FMCG brand that means working hardest in-store. The big grocers understand this more than anyone, and expect more ruthlessness should brands not put their retail customers' interests at the heart of their plans.

Rob Sellers is managing director at Grey Shopper London

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