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.

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…