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Macro beer soul searching: It's not you, it's me!

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

A dark and ominous tree lined lake. Denmark’s best-known actor (probably), Mads Mikkelson, looking dapper in a black suit and white shirt, rows a boat across the misty lake. A portentous soundtrack ramps up the tension. So far, so Scandi-Noir. Looking down the lens, he addresses us directly and tells us that: “In the UK Carlsberg pursued being the biggest [pause…], not the best [pause…], and the beer suffered.”

It is a serious and soul-baring message from Carlsberg and alongside a stark acknowledgement that the brand had lost it's way, introduces the new recipe 'Carlsberg Danish Pilsner', which has been “rebrewed from head to hop”. It has been described as their most ambitious and honest consumer facing campaign ever.

The campaign is a bold strategic move from Carlsberg, an act of contrition that holds its hand up and acknowledge past mistakes. A case of “it’s not you, it’s me” as the brand tries to woo drinkers back with what they describe as a crisper, fuller taste. Even the classic ‘Probably the best lager in the world…’ campaign strapline was subject to a subtle spot of self-inflicted adbusting from Carlsberg themselves. “It takes a conscientious brand to realise the product they make isn’t on par with what their marketing slogans proclaim” added Tom Harvey, of drinks marketing agency YesMore. For some marketing commentators the campaign is characterised as a functional statement that fails to make an emotional connection beyond the apology. It is a precarious and challenging balancing act that attempts to satisfy investors as well as consumers with defensive strategies that could be viewed as either bold or desperate.

Come back, I've changed! Rebrewed from head to hop: Carlsberg's honest re-appraisal

The market for mainstream lager, dominated by Macro brewery lines such as Coors, Carlsberg, Fosters, and Heineken is in decline. Consumers are increasingly opting to drink less, and a growing number of conscientious consumers are choosing quality over quantity, and not flinching at a correspondingly higher price point. In a market space where the generic ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ approach looks increasingly out of step, the major breweries recognise the need to innovate around quality and taste perceptions rather than battle it out for market domination. Liam Newton, Vice-President of Marketing at Carlsberg UK sums up the message at the core of the campaign: “We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best”. Carlsberg still seem to define their market position in terms of other mainstream lagers, so not quite bold enough to suggest that regaining ground from the craft market is on the cards. In the days when there was very little to distinguish one mainstream lager brand from another, Carlsberg could legitimately claim to ‘probably’ be the best of the bland. As David Mitchell (yes that one, the ‘Peep Show’ and ‘Would I Lie…’ guy…) highlights in a humorous slice of commentary in the Guardian, 59% prefer the taste of the new Danish pilsner to the unnamed “current UK Number 1 mainstream lager” (It’s Carling, darling…). So, looking at it another way, 41% prefer the taste of Carling. Let that one sink in….

Carlsberg has realised the need to adapt to the changing beer tastes of consumers by developing a ‘craft portfolio’ that includes the acquisition of London Fields brewery and collaborations with US mainstay Brooklyn Brewery. This direction is also illustrated in the re-branding of Carlsberg Export, re-positioned around the brand’s strong heritage in an attempt to attach associations of authenticity to the product. Carlsberg’s Newton acknowledged the need to renovate and innovate their portfolio and described how: “Craft has been a force for good because it has injected new life into a category that was feeling a bit stagnant.”

A wolf in craft clothing?

Heineken lager brand Maltsmiths is also getting in on the ‘real quality beer’ act by focusing on higher value premium and craft lager options. Aiming to highlight “the love that Maltsmiths have for what they do”, the £4.5m TV and outdoor ‘When You Love What You Do’ campaign (big budget advertising only macro backing can buy) places a jaunty Hall & Oates soundtrack over a zippy brewery tour. A ton of visual cues represent the process and passion behind the beer - overalls, hops, and fermenting vessels - before settling on a beer garden scene of happy young things enjoying the Maltsmith brew. Even the name itself seems laboratory engineered to suggest a crafted product (malt as a key ingredient in beer production, ‘smith’ connotes expert or specialist production). The lager is unlikely to have seasoned craft beer aficionados ditching their Verdant and Left Hand Giant brews, but has a clearly stated objective, according to Heineken’s Brand Manager, of being “the perfect gateway beer for those who want to try craft but aren’t sure where to start”.

Back to Newton at Carlsberg who, to his credit, has a clear grasp of the dynamics of the beer industry in the wake of the phenomenal growth of the craft beer sector: “The great thing about craft is that it has brought to the beer market a real focus on the product itself. If you look at some beer traditionally, it’s been more about the marketing than it’s been about the beer.”

The macro breweries have the marketing budgets and the economies of scale to reassert themselves around the new axis of product quality and flavour and attempt to meet shifting consumer expectations of what a beer should taste like. Informed beer lovers have driven more marketplace diversity (just check out the beer section of your major supermarket chain where Brewdog, Sierra Nevada, Beavertown, and Vocation beers are edging more established beer brands off the shelves). Consumer demand for craft beer is leading to more availability in bars, pubs, convenience stores, hotel chains, supermarkets, and grocery stores, not to mention a proliferation of craft-dedicated beer shops. The Supermarket chains are recruiting savvy retail buyers to strike deals with craft breweries to get stock onto supermarket shelves, in turn increasing supply and bringing the price point for selected craft beers down. Carlsberg's new brew Danish Pilsner is the first defensive salvo in a battle for market space between macro and micro (craft) breweries that is being fought around quality, and innovation.

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