BITE Focus

From Last Orders to getting back on the bar stool

How Carlsberg and Fold7 elevated brand building in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


On Friday 20th March the bell that signalled last orders at pubs up and down the UK signalled the beginning of a lockdown period which would have a devastating effect on the hospitality industry. Announcing the extraordinary step, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted the move went against what he defined as “the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub”. His comments reflect the importance of pub culture to UK society and its role, not just as the driver of the on-trade economy for the country’s leading beer brands, but also as a central part of local communities.

The importance of pub culture was instantly recognised by Carlsberg, as the brand grappled with a genuinely unprecedented marketing crisis. For the newly arrived Emma Sherwood-Smith, Director of Marketing at Carlsberg UK, it was a challenge she faced after just five weeks in the role. Having joined the brewing giant in February, as she explained: “the shape of the business massively changed.”

Yet, while many marketers talk a good game when it comes to investing through any downturn or crisis, Sherwood-Smith held both her nerve and her marketing spend. “The first thing we did was take a big pause,” she says. Notably that didn’t simply equate to turning off marketing spend and “going dark”. Instead she took a decision for the brand very early on to keep investing in TV advertising. “We decided to keep running our TV ad and it proved to be a fantastic decision. It led to our highest levels of brand awareness,” she explains. An awareness which successfully drove sales of the brand in the off-trade. “Our brand was top of mind and that drove demand,” she adds.

People’s needs were really evolving quickly so one of the first thing we did was talk to people about what they really missed.

Emma Sherwood-Smith

Back to the marketing drawing board

Yet Sherwood-Smith quickly recognised that they needed to start again with their broader marketing campaign: “People’s needs were really evolving quickly so one of the first thing we did was talk to people about what they really missed.” It was an approach which quickly established that consumers were fixated on the question of when things will get back to normal. This posed a question for the brand: how do we capture that moment moving forward?

The brand had previously launched the Love My Local digital platform, which encourages pub-goers to support their local pub in a safe and responsible way. The app enabled consumers to support pubs, bars and restaurants in lockdown by buying from online food and drink menus; it took online payments and gathered customer data. The app also provided a technology-based lifeline to pubs when they could reopen by enabling them to take payments and deliver. Sherwood-Smith says that My Local was really focused on helping local pubs get back on their feet: “Success for pubs means opening again.”

Success also meant going back to the marketing drawing board and scrapping the product-based campaign the team was planning prior to lockdown. A decision that Ryan Newey, Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Fold 7 describes as “painful”. Yet it was clear it was the only option. He adds: “For a brand to be too introverted in the time of COVID just doesn't make sense. The question for brands is, is there a message for the greater good.”

Yet he was equally clear that didn’t simply mean adding to the noise of the Coronavirus advertising that was already on screens. Newey describes how even friends outside of the industry asked him: “You are not making another Coronavirus ad are you?”

He explains: “During the novelty of the first stage of lockdown everyone was bonding over the shared sense of weirdness.” Yet this initial stage was clearly not going to last forever, he adds: “There was a definite shift in sentiment. From a creative point of view, we have seen lots of creativity across the industry going into lockdown particularly with regards to how you make an ad. Yet as we went on there was a real sea of sameness.”

In response to this the team focused on the consumer insights and the shift in culture afoot. This equated to focusing on the strong sense of what consumers were missing; “The smell of your local, your favourite bar stool, the good old days kind of vibe,” Newey adds.

The great escape

Yet while consumers were undoubtedly craving a return to a semblance of normality the brand had to beware of an overly celebratory message, when so much uncertainty and the black dog of grief remained so palpable across the country. With this in mind the team took the decision to focus on the spirit of togetherness that the return of pubs promised, underpinned with the strapline, “Better when we are together? Probably”. The spot was set to the theme tune of The Great Escape. 

The concept of the Great Escape was a fitting one. For a beer brand the sociability factor of the pubs reopening was key,” Newey explains. But the brand also had to be laser-focused on delivering a responsible message, especially with regards to social distancing. “We were shooting on the day that the announcement was made to move from two meters to one meter plus,” he adds.

The remote shoot saw Sherwood-Smith miming out the all-important ‘perfect pour’ for the product shot. A team effort which ensured that all important critical product shot was picture perfect. With the director’s feed on the monitor and Newey on Teams, the team could come together while physically distanced. Neither is an advocate for remote shoots forever; Sherwood-Smith reveals that not meeting the director was her biggest regret.

Less meetings and more conversations is the key learning here.

Ryan Newey

Blurring of the client and agency relationship

Yet despite the lack of bacon sandwiches on set and face-to-face interaction both the brand and agency will take new ways of working out of the experience. Speed and agility were of course top of the agenda, with Carlsberg trumping even the BBC in the launch of its pub opening countdown clock. 

But the biggest takeaways from the intense and unprecedented experience are ones rooted in humanity and connection. “I’ve never been a fan of big set piece meetings and overly long conversations,” explains Sherwood-Smith. “What we really learned from this experience is the real benefits of being one team. There was a real blurring of the line between the agency and client team,” she adds.

Taking the performative element out of the relationship created a culture of trust around the shared endeavour of getting an ad out in a fast-changing environment, with significant physical restrictions and social distancing measures in place. From nightly phone calls with Fold 7’s Business Director Sarah Kay, with a Carlsberg in hand naturally, to talk through the campaign and sense-check the tone for the spot, the team worked closely together throughout the process. Much of that was done in a very informal, level A shift which Fold 7’s Newey describes as, “less meetings and more conversations.” Conversations which provided the spark for creative work at a time when many brands had simply gone dark.

For Sherwood-Smith, keeping the marketing lights on is proving to be an effective strategy. Yet it’s one that demands marketers continue to look outwards and focus on the communities they serve, as opposed to just the products they are selling. Her biggest learning from the experience may well be simple but it is all too often overlooked: “Start with what is happening in culture, rather than just your sales message.” It’s an approach which enabled the brand to find the right tone and continue to build brand awareness, when all too many brands couldn’t find the words, or the necessary marketing budgets, to even begin.