Mark Ritson: Turning Carlsberg Liverpool-red is a branding masterstroke
By adopting Liverpool FC’s red colour to celebrate its long association with the club, Carlsberg continues to play with its distinctive assets in a way that revitalises the brand.
The quest to transform Liverpool FC into a world-beating side really only began in the 1960s. Prior to that Liverpool played in the shadow of their Evertonian rivals across town. But with the appointment of legendary manager Bill Shankly the fortunes of the club changed radically in the space of a few short years.
Shankly brought many things to Liverpool but high up on that list of transformational introductions was Ron Yeats. The Scottish schoolboy international had forged a formidable reputation at Dundee United, but when Shankly brought Yeats south of the border in 1961 for the unearthly sum of £20,000 he immediately installed him as team captain.
Yeats was an incredible centre-half and he quickly earned the nickname ‘The Colossus’. He was first to the ball, tough and – in the parlance of the day – built ‘like a brick shithouse’. Shankly was so impressed with the sheer physical presence of his new captain that after he signed him the manager insisted that the waiting press corps go into the dressing room and physically inspect his newest player. “The man is a mountain,” he told local journalists. “Go into the dressing room and walk around him.”
Yeats’ most famous moment for Liverpool was related to his heft but did not happen on the field of play. Three years into his tenure as captain, Shankly approached Yeats in the dressing room and threw him a pair of red shorts. “Get into those and let’s see how you look,” Shankly barked, according to the account of Ian St John, Liverpool’s ace forward.
Traditionally Liverpool had played in red shirts with white shorts and socks. Shankly – who would try anything to beat his opponents – believed that red shorts would increase the intimidation factor of his rapidly improving side. And, bananas as it sounds, 30 years later quantitative research would actually confirm that teams playing in red were indeed more successful.
Yeats slipped on the red shorts to match his red shirt and stood up. “Christ Ronnie,” exclaimed Shankly with an appreciative smile. “You look awesome, terrifying. You look seven feet tall.”
But St John, who was watching this play out in the changing rooms, had an additional suggestion. “Why not wear red socks too? Let’s go all out in red.” Shankly agreed and Liverpool’s iconic red strip was born.
It’s a moment from half a century ago but, as Liverpool continue their most important week of fixtures for many decades, one that could not be more appropriate to relive. And Carlsberg – fresh from admitting in a bold branding move that it is not the best beer in the world – is making the most of the opportunity.
Playing with codes
The Danish brand has been a sponsor of Liverpool FC for a quarter of a century – the longest-standing commercial partnership in the Premier League. To celebrate an incredible season and its 26-year connection with the club, Carlsberg’s familiar green logo has been turned Anfield red. So has the bottle containing the pilsner. And, uniquely, so has the beer.
The brewer has used the outer shell of the red barley variant to give its special edition beer a natural red colour. The hops for the beer were grown in soil from Anfield and were played videos of some of Liverpool’s great games on a loop as they grew to instill as much of the great club’s DNA into the beer as possible. It’s mental. But its Scouse mental.
Clearly this is a brilliant move by Carlsberg. First, it is celebrating a partnership that defines it in the UK. But Liverpool’s influence, as one of the world’s most supported teams, spreads much wider than Merseyside. This is a promotion that will delight millions of football fans all over the planet.
And there is a further, more strategic rationale for what appears – at first – to be just a short promotional tactic. Just as red is a very particular code for Liverpool FC, dark green – or hex #00321E to give it its proper name – is the dominant code for Carlsberg.
I call them codes because I grew up working for French luxury brands (yes, I know you cannot tell) while the inestimable marketing professor Jenni Romaniuk (who literally wrote the book on the subject) calls them distinctive assets. Either way they are the identifiers of the brand. The way a brand stands out. Shows itself. Makes itself noticed on shelf, in an ad, or across any of the other myriad moments of saliency when a brand wants to be first to mind.
Could it be that a big brand in the UK has a team of brand managers in charge who know what they are doing? Surely not.
A logo is a code. But well-run brands have created a broader shortlist of distinctive, ownable symbols that can be used to ensure consumers instantly connect with a brand in all kinds of commercial situations. When I work with brands we spend just as much time on the codes as we do on the position of the brand. If there is any topic that splits marketers at the moment it is the presence or absence of differentiation.
I am certain it exists (albeit not in the amount suggested by the text books) so I think positioning is a key challenge. But I believe equally, if not more, in distinctiveness, and for that you need codes. And Carlsberg has been using its codes – the white logo, the red and gold crown, the hop leaf device that sits above the ‘r’ in its name, 1847 Copenhagen, and the dark green colour – for a lifetime and more.
Revitalising a middle-aged brand
Usually we talk about how codes are used to improve a brand’s salience. All true. But they also play a deeper, more valuable symbolic role for brands of a certain age. There is a very handy bit of synchronicity that works for older brands. Once a brand passes the middle age mark of about 40, at least in my experience, two things often happen. One of them is a problem, the other its partial solution.
First, the brand starts to struggle with revitalisation. When it was a young brand it was automatically hot and naturally aligned with the first target consumers it was designed for. But as the decades pass every brand eventually experiences the tricky moment when it has become older than the consumers that it targets. Markets change, culture evolves and the paradox of time means that to stay true to its position it must change its execution.
In order to stay attractive, the brand wants to follow new consumers into new territories. But with half a century or more of history and heritage, moving too far away from its origins would abandon everything that made it special in the first place. There is a balance to be struck. Too much innovation and new consumer focus and all is lost in a violent moment of rupture. Too much heritage and tradition and all is also lost in a coating of dust.
A second trait of middle-aged brands, if they have been run well, can help the resolve the revitalisation issue. Because if a brand has been applying its codes consistently and assiduously for a half century or more it now has an opportunity to play with those codes to signal freshness. It’s a semiotic magic trick. By tweaking or inverting or reversing a brand code it is possible to achieve a double victory: to look fresh and creative while remaining linked to heritage and history.
In the Carlsberg instance turning its beer and brand red achieves something fun, different and new. But the iconic nature of the dark green means that the redder it makes its beer, the more powerful the recognition that the dark green is missing and the more redolent the realisation that this is still Carlsberg. Its marketers have refreshed their brand and reinforced it at the same time while delighting millions of football fans and generating acres of publicity.
It is, for me, one of the epitomes of great brand management to play with codes. That’s because it first requires decades of diligent application to build such salience and recognition in the first place. Then it requires branding bravery to burn the brand book and reverse decades of consistency with a moment of creative dissonance that weak-minded marketers always assume will damage the brand.
Weeks after I was writing how much I admire Carlsberg’s new campaign to position the beer as probably not the best beer in the world I find myself in the embarrassing and unheralded position of embracing its marketing team for a second time. I swear they are not paying me. Could it be that a big brand in the UK has a team of brand managers in charge who know what they are doing? Surely not.
But as surely as Bill Shankly knew all red was the route to a better team, so too Carlsberg has realised that an occasional deviation from dark green can serve it well. Let’s hope some of that ambition rubs off on Liverpool this week. How dearly would I, and big Ron Yeats, like to see them squeak past Man City at the weekend. It appears almost impossible but, as we have all come to realise, there is magic in the all-red. Walk on.