If you ask any restaurant manager or bar owner in Hong Kong to list the beers they serve, you can be 99 per cent sure that one of the first three brand names mentioned will be Carlsberg. In a market which is fiercely competitive and offers consumers so many choices, that can be regarded as a triumph for marketing and for the strategies used to build brand awareness.
"We have been part of the entertainment industry here for many years," says Soren Holm Jensen, general manager for Carlsberg Hong Kong Limited. "The core of our business is the Carlsberg brand, but we are a company that represents a portfolio of products. It is better to have different brands for different roles and it is also important to have a clear strategy mapped out for each of them."
Illustrating this, the portfolio currently includes Skol, which is aimed more at restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets; Jolly Shandy, a carbonated drink intended mainly for teenagers; Tetley's from the UK, Tuborg from Denmark and Holsten from Germany for beer connoisseurs; and Guinness, for which there is an agency agreement to do sales, distribution and marketing in Hong Kong and Macau.
Even so, the company's market research indicated that something was missing. Consequently, a new subbrand - Carlsberg Chill - as launched around ten months ago as a beer for younger, outgoing types who had not yet developed a taste for more full-bodied lagers. It was a concept targeted specifically at drinkers in the Hong Kong and China markets and was coordinated locally, though with significant input from the corporate headquarters in Denmark.
The initial objective when research and tests began three years ago was to create an "easy to drink" beer with a lighter, "crispy" flavour. The intention was also to catch the eye of new consumers with a very distinctive "look". During the development process, the technical and marketing teams came up with 17 different beer recipes before they finally settled on one. That decision was the result of consumer research, focus groups and an enormous number of taste tests.
Once the right product had been found, it was then necessary to decide on the vital elements that would attract interest and come to characterise the brand. Everything had to be considered from name, packaging and colours to logo, typography, pricing and media plans.
"It is a very fact-driven process, meaning that if the consumer has a different opinion from us, we will go with what they think, so long as it is in line with the core brand values and the company's commitment to social responsibility," explains Mr Jensen. "We also have to keep things as close as we can as long as possible, so that competitors can't block us or launch their own campaigns at the same time." The result of extensive tests and deliberations was to opt for a brand identity that was "clearly Carlsberg but clearly different". A slimmer, more stylish bottle was selected, a modified logo was designed and bolder typography used.
In launching Chill, the initial sales strategy focused on local bars, karaokes, discos and convenience stores. This will, though, expand to many more outlets as the brand becomes better known. It has already been successfully launched in five markets in China and will be rolled out progressively in the coming years. "Things have been going very well since the launch," says Mr Jensen. "Sales are making progress every month and have added a whole new level of vitality to the company, since we now have a core brand for the younger audience."
In due course, Carlsberg Chill may be introduced in other Asian countries. As with any product, this may mean minor modifications in order to build the brand in a way appropriate to each local market. For instance, some countries forbid advertising which shows someone drinking from a bottle, so any campaign must take account of national regulations and sensibilities.
Whatever is done will tie in closely with the worldwide essence of the main brand. Around five years ago, it was decided to base advertising and promotional activities on the theme of "drink with the world of friends". The objective was to emphasise Carlsberg brands' international availability, connecting with other people and having fun with your friends. Therefore, everything was geared to associating the brand with events which deliberately brought people together and were not too "exclusive".
In the local market this led to an increased number of on-premise activities in bars, discos and karaoke clubs, and has now extended to the organising of a "Hong Kong Idol" competition for aspiring superstars. In a more international context, the theme of sociability led to further engagement with soccer in many different ways. Those who follow the sport will have noticed shirt sponsorship of the Liverpool team, support for the Euro 2004 championships, and backing for the annual Carlsberg Cup tournament during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.
"Soccer is all about fun, excitement and being with your friends," says Mr Jensen. "That makes it a great drinking occasion, whether at a match, watching in a bar, or after playing a game."
With its portfolio of brands and strong sales development, Carlsberg Hong Kong has plans to recruit on a regular basis. University graduates with three to five years' FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) experience are hired as assistant managers, brand managers and key account managers, while for those in more sales-related roles a degree is not essential. The key qualities needed are dynamism, creativity and an outgoing personality. "We always stress it is not a nine to five job," says Mr Jensen. "But if people like a challenge and can connect with consumers, this industry and our company offer great opportunities."