May 28, 2011

Carlsberg and the Idea of "Gender Neutral" Beer

Right, so you may have heard about Carlsberg and their latest little foray into a design-focused product. It's called Copen*hagen. It looks like this:
Okay, fine. Not really special, right? Maybe a little like a wine cooler, but it's European-focused, and minimalism (if that's what we want to call the black-on-white, sans serif text-based bland "design") plays better in Europe. 

Except this beer has an insidious, secret agenda. This beer is designed to worm its way into the hearts and minds and livers of a specific type of drinker. Can you guess what it is?

Here are the always-complimentary writers at TrendHunter (bold is mine):
The brewery’s in-house design team developed the identity for the new pale ale with a simplicity that most booze brands behind the bar would hardly dream of. Distinguishing these bottles as different, the image exudes a purity and a refreshing look that should be enough to attract consumers in search of their token beverages. With a young target consumer base, the Copen*hagen by Carlsberg will appeal to those who’ve yet to become creatures of consuming habit. The clean transparent packaging urges an appreciation of the drink within that most bottled beverages tend to mask.
Get it yet? Me neither. Young people? What? Maybe Carlsberg’s Jeanette Elgaard Carlsson can help us out.
We can see that there are a number of consumers, especially women, who are very aware of design when they choose beverage products. There may be situations where they are standing in a bar and want their drinks to match their style. In this case, they may well reject a beer if the design does not appeal to them. 
Oh. So it's a beer for you, if you have a vagina. According to Gothamist (linked via Alan), that's great!
Efforts to start marketing to non-straight male sensibilities are really ramping up. First there were those queer beers for boys who like boys who like their beers purple, and now Carlsberg has gone and announced a new beer, Copenhagen, aimed with women in mind. The wheat and rice beer, which the company calls "a real alternative to white wine and champagne," is the brewer's attempt to tap female consumers, who make up an estimated quarter of the market. Most important to this new beer, apparently, is style. Announcing the brew, Carlsberg emphasizes how well it will match your outfit.
Yes, that was written by a man.

Carlsberg market research team
I have, on this blog, written often about the efforts of craft breweries in considering women, and I have mentioned that I believe that to be important. In case I was ever unclear, this is not what I meant.

The craft blogosphere has been divided, with craft beer blogs, unsurprisingly, not been in love with Copen*hagen (an astericized name I find stupid, if you've keeping score). The Ladies of Craft Beer's Theresa Carpine took a pretty neutral stance but noted, "I don’t care if it matches my shoes, if that’s what Carlsberg thinks I’m worried about." Salon's Drew Grant throws out lots of sarcasm and wit, but it appears she feels actual analysis is above the product's worth:

Strangely, Carlsberg designers forgot the most important part when creating a beer for the fairer sex, which is that it must have zero calories and taste like carbonated strawberries.See, ladies, in this scenario, you are what you drink. Easy to embrace. A natural beauty that needs no makeup. Blond is the new black (sorry, brunettes!). This beer is speaking to your style, girlfriends! Guys, you can continue to drink whatever is cheapest or tastes best.

So we can see that some find the idea of a beer to match the purse a little demeaning (who could have guessed?). Of all the analysis, Suzanne Labarre of Fast Company probably was the most charitable:

High design as a gender equalizer, fighting a pitched battle against the Swedish bikini team. Contrast Carlsberg to Molson Coors, one of the big brewers marketing explicitly to women with a campaign called the Bittersweet Partnership. The partnership is aimed at making it “OK [for women] to love beer” and has a salmon-pink website complete with a flowery heart logo! Recipes! News updates (“It’s national doughnut week!”)! A Facebook promotion featuring the silky silhouette of four women and the question: “Are you a beer angel?”! We haven’t seen anything so patronizingly femme-y since the last time we watched a tampon commercial. It’s a promising development in an industry that’s spent too many years getting drunk on tired gender stereotypes.
Also: no.
I get her point, but I don't know how inclined I am to give credit for not being blatantly chauvinistic. I expect that firms are smart enough to not put everything in pink and talk down to customers. Yes, those expectations are often not met, but I still think it's all right to have them. Just because Carlsberg doesn't totally see female beer drinkers as some unthinking man's version of female beer drinkers, that doesn't mean this is respectful. If you're appearance-concerned enough to order your beverages in an attempt to coordinate, my guess is that you're trying to look good for someone else. So if you are saying that sometimes women want a beer that will look better with their outfit, isn't that sort of saying that you made a beer to help women be more attractive... and largely to men? 

Which is fine. Sometimes I want to look good for other people, too (though in my case the fix is likely a bit more involved than a minimalist beer label). For that matter, not liking beer is fine, too. But then order something you do like, like wine or a cocktail. Ordering a bad beer that you don't like because it looks better is patently dumb. And trying to convince someone to order a beer she does not like because it will make her look better is patently jerky.

Which brings us to the final possible reason Carlsberg is doing this, which is that they feel drinkers are sensitive to the stigma around beer in high society. In that case, they are trying to create a beer that a woman can order and still feel elegant. There are plenty of swank events where a bottle of even "classy" beer might not quite fit most people's vision of the stereotypical dress or gown. And I agree that's a problem (though thankfully one that's becoming less so every year). But if you want to solve that problem, then the long-term answer is to make people aware of the complexity, subtlety and refinement of craft brewed beer (all characteristics Copen*hagen surely lacks). 

Hey! We're classy, too!
Okay, okay, but that doesn't help when you're at the opera fundraiser and you need to drink something that will not make Rich Mr. Crustyface think you're a Philistine. And here is where I will tentatively give a small amount of credit to Carlsberg, though we are now far afield of their "look, it's a beer for people with no Y chromosomes!" strategy. There are very few beers packaged in such a way that they would not look out of place for an elegant, upscale person to drink at an elegant, upscale event. Copen*hagen could, perhaps, pull that off.

So, they may have found an interesting niche with design. The problem is that the niche in question is absolutely not what they seem to be marketing toward. The language above is all about women standing in bars, where so many better beverage options would be perfectly suitable. I do not understand this, but I am happy to be told I am wrong (I am, after all, not a woman). So, female readers, does this make your lady-senses tingle with anticipation? Or is Carlsberg as daft as they appear to be?

1 comment:

  1. The concept of "a real alternative to white wine and champagne" is actually somewhat interesting, and it's possible to brew beer that shares those characteristics (while still retaining a distinctive beer character). Copenhagen just seems like a standard light lager with some marketing focused towards women. Their website says it's for "modern women and men" though. Strange.