In Denmark, this month, Pete Brown bore witness to the latest attempt by a multinational brewer to give its flagship beer a global identity. This well-worn road, however, is beset by perils and pitfalls. For beer, warns Pete, even moreso.

Earlier this month, I was one of 80 journalists summoned from around the world to Copenhagen, where we were beered and dined delightfully before being ushered through an event that resembled a military coup more than a press launch. Carlsberg was launching its new global marketing campaign, all centred on the strapline, ‘That calls for a Carlsberg’.

As we watched some good but fairly typical brand ads, followed by executions paying homage to the product, and yet more reminding us of Carlsberg’s links with football, some of my more product-focused beer writing colleagues were non-plussed: why drag us all this way just to show us some new ads, which were already launching on YouTube as we sat there under vast green banners depicting new, ‘iconised’ bottles? 

I’ve worked on global ad campaigns before, so I at least understood why Carlsberg felt it was worth making this much fuss. Truly global brand building is extremely difficult. And, it’s harder in beer than it is for any other mainstream product. 

Unified global marketing campaigns exist at the mercy of national, regional and local differences. We’ve all heard the apocryphal horror stories about the multi-million pound launch of the new car being scuppered because no one realised the cool-sounding model name meant ‘whore’ in Portuguese, or the soft drink brand that meant ‘small penis’ in China. And names are just the tip of the iceberg: usage, habits, imagery, perceptions of premiumness – all are still quite varied as you travel around the world.

This is more pronounced in beer. After all, there is no such thing as a global beer brand. 

As the likes of Budweiser, Guinness, Carlsberg and Heineken each hire hit-men to take me out for making that statement, what I mean by it is that a global brand is one that has a shared, common meaning and perception across large populations. Each of the brands above would point to the fact that they have a presence in 140 or 160 countries as proof that they are global beer brands. But in each case, the vast majority of their volume is sold in a few territories. If they’re in 140 countries, in 130 of those they are a super-premium product on the bar in the three Irish theme pubs in the nation’s capital, and a smattering of hotel bars and minibars. 

When I wrote 'Three Sheets to the Wind', I visited over 400 bars and pubs in 26 cities in 13 countries. I wasn’t too adventurous in my selection – apart from China and Japan, every country was a western liberal democracy. Even including China and Japan, every one of those 26 cities was emblazoned with logos from Nike, Gap, Starbucks and Marlboro. In every one of those cities, from Portland to Madrid to Shanghai, I could have eaten a Big Mac or drunk a Coke or a Pepsi.

But, in every city, the beer was different – not just the brands, but the culture surrounding them, the places they were drunk, the salty snacks they were drunk with – all were culturally specific. 

Why? 

Well, Frank Zappa summed it up better than anyone else: “You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” 

Beer is about identity. Your choice of beer says much more about who you are and how you want others to perceive you than your choice of toilet roll, or sandwich, or coffee. And because beer is sociable, it’s not just about individual identity; it’s about group identity too. 

This scales up to the level of national identity. Okay, so Budweiser was available in every country I visited. In America, it is part of the national identity as much as the Stars and Stripes. But, if you’re a proud Catalan, you wouldn’t dream of drinking anything other than Estrella. In Australia, you might tolerate VB, but if you’re from Queensland that would only be under duress, if there were no XXXX available. Efes accounts for nine in ten beers sold in Turkey, while Guinness is part of the very definition of what it means to be Irish. Or Nigerian.

No one sees their choice of burger and fries as having any impact on notions of identity and nationality. McDonalds and Coca Cola are no longer American; they’re stateless global citizens with universal relevance. But, it’s quite different with beer. 

That’s why there’s never been a successful global beer marketing campaign that has any distinct identity to it. What’s premium in one market is commonplace in another.

I worked with one brewer who tried to negotiate this by issuing a global ‘brand essence’ – three words that were not “energetic”, “emotional” and “inspiring”, but might as well have been – and told local agencies to execute every single piece of creative work against that template. The local agencies did. You’d be amazed how many different tonalities, propositions and personalities can all be post-rationalised back to what you thought was quite a distinct combination of adjectives. 

So, when Carlsberg told us that this one bottle, this one set of values, this one strapline, this one campaign, was going to be shown in all of its 140 markets, after extensive global testing, you can see why they thought it was newsworthy.

Strategically, it’s clever. The idea of beer as reward is a familiar marketing trope, but it has to be this broad to have universal relevance that underpins local customs and practices, drinking occasions and places. 

But already, there are cracks.

“What was wrong with ‘Probably the best beer in the world?’” asked the editor when I suggested this idea for my column. Well, nothing – in the countries where it worked. Which is why it is being retained, at least for the time being, in markets like the UK. When you’re in a branding workshop, you may be able to convince yourself that “That calls for a Carlsberg because Carlsberg is probably the best beer in the world” is one unified, global idea that makes sense. But, if this were (a) true and (b) any good, then that would be the global strapline.

So already, there are regional variations in this much-vaunted global campaign. But, don’t blame Carlsberg for that. On some level, they still recognise the need for such variations. And, it’s a very foolish former FMCG marketer who comes into the beer category and either ignores or attempts to ride roughshod over the very quirks that make beer uniquely ownable and special from one country to the next.