It is one of the biggest new partnership deals in global sport and it has a very Irish heart to it. Guinness’ announcement that it was to take over sponsorship of the Six Nations, the ‘Greatest Rugby Tournament in the World’ according to its own promotion and rarely questioned on that, came in December and had been closely guarded throughout the negotiation period.
The brand’s support of rugby and association with its community of fans and teams dates back over decades though and in many ways, this was a natural culmination.
After a number of years of uncertainty, including a one year stop gap extension from Nat West and Ulster Bank in 2018, the length of the deal at six years and the heritage of the sponsor within the sport has been something of a relief, and a big winning start for new Six nations CEO Ben Morel.
The partnership kicks off on the pitch on Friday night in Paris and Sport for Business sat down yesterday with Diageo Head of Partnerships, Rory Sheridan to find out more about the deal, where it came from and what it will look like.
Guinness has long had a deep association with Rugby. Why was now the right time to double down with Six Nations?
Rugby has always been there for Guinness and the brands within the Diageo family. Swithwicks was an original backer of the Towns Cup and Guinness has been there with the IRFU for a period of more than 30 years.
There have been robust contracts in place for around sixteen and the association is deep.
We never go into any partnership on a whim. We have to genuinely feel there is a strong fit between where we invest and what impact that has among people.
We are a people business. We produce alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, responsibly, and we put them in peoples hands to enhance their experiences. Our marketing is geared towards a point of difference where people will choose our brands to be part of the way they live their lives, celebrate the high points and come together socially.
Sponsorship is a brand putting their hand up to be part of a particular passion point. If we don’t feel there is a proper place for us to play we won’t go there. When the fit is right though we will always look to do that properly whether that’s in rugby, football, horse racing, formula one or entertainment.
There is a natural fit for a beer brand among people going to matches or watching them with friends.
With Guinness, the relationship with the sport changed over time. We became the official beer of the IRFU, of Irish Rugby, we then became a stand naming partner in the old Lansdowne Road. When the Aviva Stadium rose from the rubble of that we morphed into supporting the November international matches which became the Guinness Autumn Series and then the Guinness Series.
I think we have enhanced the appeal of those games through our marketing and it has been a great period of time with cracking games including those against New Zealand in Chicago in 2016, back here the same year and then of course last year with that first win on home soil.
We were title sponsors of the Guinness Premiership in England and we have a 20-year association with London Irish over in London too. That’s always been an important link for Irish exiles.
Over time then we became partners with Leinster Rugby and with the redevelopment of Thomond Park there was an opportunity to pitch for the rights to become a partner of the stadium and as an official partner of Munster Rugby as well.
The move into the club or provincial game here stepped up with our involvement then with what is now the Guinness PRO14 and that has worked very well for us in the specific markets where that tournament holds sway, including over the past year in South Africa.
Around nine years ago we stepped back from the Premiership though maintained a lower level association as official beer and we pursued separate partnerships with English, Scottish and Welsh rugby, based on the model we had created in Ireland.
That was also the point at which we formed a new partnership, along the same lines, with Six Nations Rugby.
Creating that had the potential at some point in the future, if the time was right, to become the main partner of the tournament.
There was an opportunity a number of years ago but with other business priorities and different economic circumstances, it was not quite right. We didn’t say no as much as not yet. That was a risk but Arthur Guinness himself was a risk taker and we were happy to make that call at that time. Over the past year that has changed and we are now today in the place we imagined we might be that decade or so ago.
So there has been a long and winding road towards this point, but always with a map in hand. Stepping in and then sideways on particular partnerships has been part of the journey. Does the Six Nations pose a threat to continued involvement in the Guinness PRO14?
The answer is no. That was originally a two plus four-year deal. It was new for us at the time and we took the view that we wanted to learn from it and see how we could develop the tournament together.
We got our feet under the table and felt really comfortable. Two of our favourite teams Leinster and Munster Rugby are doing extremely well and it gave us an opportunity to test our resolve at this level. Were we set up to activate a tournament like this properly, and to bring it to another level for ourselves and for them?
It has worked very well and we have a huge passion for it. Naturally, we always reflect on any renewal but there was great rigour applied to the decision to add the four years to that partnership and we will do the same when that renewal comes up in a couple of years time.
What Guinness Six Nations gives us is an always-on platform in 180 markets with 120 million viewers and a million attendees every year. It’s about ten times bigger than the Guinness PRO14 but both have their place and we are thrilled to have both.
How do you manage the different assets, tournaments and teams internally? Do you have different groups competing with each to produce results other or is it very collaborative?
Very much on the collaborative side. The Guinness brand team has always been involved but more so now than ever before. When you sign up to be a naming partner there is a lot more commitment and a lot more need for investing on the ground.
We have a dedicated Rugby team within the Guinness brand team, we have a wider Culture Media and Futures team, the sponsorship group bringing it all together and a real buy-in from the sales team making sure it all resonates well with consumers.
There is a very senior level of buy-in, given the size of the investment, and it is very exciting internally over what we can do with this.
The six-year term is at the longer end of the scale in terms of agreements like this. Will year one be a testing ground for years two to six?
People will expect a big bang from Guinness. We pride ourselves on producing best in class sponsorship activations and marketing.
We need to come out of the blocks fast and we will do that with a variety of elements that will start this weekend.
Will the non-alcoholic Pure Brew form part of the mix?
We are very proud of it. Brewed to the very highest standards and an ever increasing part of where we go in the future. It will be available at all the stadia and gives us real opportunities to grow in the future and that could be a part of our plans in years two to six.
The focus for the start though will be primarily on the Guinness brand.
The tournament kicks off in France on Friday, where you will not be allowed to reference the Guinness Six Nations under their marketing laws the Loi Evin. How do you deal with that?
Obviously, the French market is very strictly regulated and we always adhere to governing law alongside our own Diageo marketing Code. Our partners in France, Moet Hennessy Diageo and ourselves are well used to working in similar dark markets.
It is a challenge when one of the Six Nations needs to be handled differently but we will meet that challenge. We will have an iteration on how the brand looks going out to the French market as well as the broadcast out to the world. That will become apparent on Friday night.
How are you handling the demand for tickets from what is always one of the hottest tickets for the business community?
We’ve always had an allocation through our existing partnerships and while there will be some extra we will follow similar lines. Unfortunately, we can’t give tickets to every customer as we have around 20,000 retail outlets.
It’s always a loaves and fishes situation but we do our best to share the excitement of being there with as many as we can.
You’re not permitted to do the broadcast partnership with TV3, will you be creating new advertising and running that through the tournament?
Yes, we have a new TV commercial which will be broadcast for the first time in the coming days.
Rugby has been central to our TV ads through the Munster, Bill McLaren and especially the Gareth Thomas ads over recent years.
The new ad will tell a new story through the Guinness Made of More lens. It’s a bit light-hearted but I think people will enjoy it. It is a very human story, elevated by sport, We’ll get it to you for Sport for Business as soon as we can.
In terms of ambassadors you are again restricted to avoid appealing directly to Under 25’s, does that mean a bigger role for more mature players?
Under our own code we cannot use Heroes of the young. We will not be using any current players but we will introduce new content over the seven weeks and that will involve a number of individuals we have had an association with in the past.
Guinness are also official partner to the Women’s Six Nations, was this an add-on to the title sponsorship of the men’s Championship?
Support of the Women’s Championship was a key requirement for us as a business in terms of negotiating the sponsorship of the Guinness Six Nations.
Inclusion and diversity are integral to Guinness as a brand but are also core to Diageo’s purpose and ethos. It was therefore very important to us and the wider business to have a relationship with the Women’s Championship. We are committed to activating around some of the women’s games this year and will be looking build our relationship with the women’s game over the life of our sponsorship.
It all gets underway this weekend and will dominate the sporting landscape through to Super Saturday on March 16th. Rest assured that Sport for Business will be there throughout to bring you all the commercial angles, complementing the action you will be watching on TV, online or in the stands.