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Does Carlsberg's new UK campaign treat consumers like suckers? - just-drinks thinks

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In 1991, Gerald Ratner, the owner of UK high street jewellery shop chain Ratner's, stepped into corporate infamy when he declared that some of the inventory his stores sold was "total crap".

Carlsberg launched Danish Pilsner exclusively to the UK market last month

Carlsberg launched Danish Pilsner exclusively to the UK market last month

Yesterday, Danish brewer Carlsberg didn't quite use those words. But in a brave new marketing campaign, the company's UK unit admitted that the beer it once centred its operations around - Carlsberg lager - was, on reflection, not very good. 

"We lost our way," Carlsberg UK said. "We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best."

They were explosive comments. But Carlsberg has not completely lost its mind. There are logical reasons for what is still called in business "doing a Ratner".

Number one is that the Carlsberg beer in question has already been discontinued and swapped for Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, which the brewer unveiled last month. This, says Carlsberg UK, is a chance for a fresh start. And this time, they promise us, the beer is actually good.

The second, and very much concurrent, reason is that mainstream beer in the UK is losing consumers to the craft category and premium spirits. In both of those categories, quality and authenticity cues are a major draw to younger consumers looking for a quantifiably better drink. Standard lager is losing out in the comparison.

So, Carlsberg has put its hands up and admitted to what it calls the "truth". Past efforts were not up to scratch, and it promises to do better in the future. Danish Pilsner is its attempt to show disaffected consumers what it can really do.

The new campaign is a bold move, but will it work? As Ratner found, denigrating your product is a risky business because it treats your consumers as suckers. Back in 1991, once-happy customers felt they'd been hoodwinked into buying inferior products and Ratner's was eventually forced to rebrand as Signet - without Ratner at the helm, of course.

Carlsberg will hope for a different outcome, and will be confident of controlling the narrative. Ratner's company-ending comments came during a speech to industry colleagues. Carlsberg is buying billboard space to tell consumer its lager was sub-par. But existing UK Carlsberg shoppers will also ask themselves - as Ratner's did - why they were being sold an inferior product, and why they should trust this new brand.

On a wider scale, the ads could also leave consumers questioning the quality of brand Carlsberg in non-UK markets, though a spokesperson for the brewer told just-drinks that the UK beer was only ever brewed for the UK market.

"We are totally satisfied with the quality - and the performance - of Carlsberg Pilsner in other markets," the spokesperson said.

What the campaign definitely tells us, however, is that large brewers are so keen to reassert demand for mainstream beer that they are willing to risk a Ratner and undercut their own product. The industry will hope Carlsberg's courageous move will have a beneficial outcome, and not become just another cautionary business tale.


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