It’s back, though in many ways it never really went away. The Heineken Champions’ Cup burst back to life at the RDS at the weekend with the Dutch beer brand back with its name over the door, just as it was in the days of the Heineken Cup.
For three years, the tournament went in search of multiple sponsors but while Heineken stayed true, only Turkish Airlines stepped up at the same level.
When the opportunity to revert to a naming deal, there was a sense of history coming back into focus in a way that is rare in commercial partnerships but which is very genuine in this context.
We sat down with Heineken Ireland Sponsorship manager Jim Geraghty to look at what we might expect throughout this season
How important is it to be back as the naming partner?
It is great. When we announced the new deal it was notable that many people thought we had not been absent. They still thought of it as the Heineken Cup. Perhaps there was a sense that in the first couple of years Irish teams had not performed as well as in the past.
Leinster’s success in may was brilliant timing for us in an Irish context, and it’s exciting to be hosting many of Heineken’s senior global team at the RDS on Friday.
Is it important in a global context in comparison to your partnership with the UEFA Champions League?
Very much so. Our partnership with Rugby is long and deep, with the best teams in Europe and with the Rugby World cup which will be huge in 2019.
We invest a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears to make it work. Back in the day, I did my thesis on the way in which Heineken invested with such impact in the Heineken Cup.
The investment signifies how important Rugby is for us as a brand across all markets.
We were getting close to a tipping point where Heineken’s long association with the European Cup was perhaps beginning to fade. We didn’t want that heritage to be lost so it was time to get back on top.
We were delighted to get it back when it became available.
Is it important to give you ‘permission’ to market as a rugby brand, because you don’t need to as such?
Yes. We like to invest in premium properties that give us a halo effect back onto the brand.
This is a tournament that a lot of competitors would give their eye teeth for and it plays incredibly well with our customers and with the overall market.
Visibility in pubs and in the off-trade is incredibly high on a big rugby weekend. This week is no different to the way it was.
Is Ireland a big market for Heineken. We seem to have a particular feel for this tournament?
Without a doubt. We are the clear number one lager brand in Ireland and when it comes to market share we are seen as a star market on a global level.
How different will the branding be now?
Being incorporated in the name and the brand is important. It lifts us out of the clutter of multiple sponsors and we see a significant lift when it comes to visibility and ‘ownership’.
We have been running workshops across our agencies, with European Rugby and with some of the big new media. Dublin is a great place to base that with Facebook and Google ready and willing to get involved.
There is a benefit for us all in terms of staying ahead of the curve.
We are part of the new tournament logo now so we will be on all the flags and a lot more assets around the grounds.
The coin toss has been an important part of the money can’t buy experience that we have brought in the past to the Rugby World Cup and that will be part of the Heineken Champions’ Cup now as well as a number of new initiatives we will be rolling out to bring fans closer.
Do you have much transfer of knowledge across your different sporting partnerships?
It’s a little more difficult in the Champions’ League because there are multiple sponsors but yes you always learn from what you do in each of the spheres. The relationship we have had in rugby though perhaps allows to ask for more and to get a little more.
The constant theme of all our partnerships is wanting to add real benefit to fans, to the tournament and to the brand. It needs to be relevant to the moment and to maximise the gain we get from the rights we have paid for.
Is it always a learning experience?
Oh yes. We will never nail it in a single weekend but the beauty of a long-term partnership with a multi-weekend tournament is that you can continually evolve. We look at what is done in each of the grounds on each of the match days and we try to adapt and develop ideas over time.
Is the return to terrestrial TV coverage after such a long time behind a paywall important to you as a sponsor?
A lot of what we look at is about reach and getting games back on Virgin Sport here and Channel 4 in Britain does expand the reach.
In Ireland, the exposure is already massive and it is very much part of the national sporting conversation. The ability though to sit down and watch games live and free to air is a massive element.
There is only one game per weekend through the group stages but once we get to the knockout games it will be much more open.
Due to legislation, we are not permitted as an alcohol brand to sponsor a sports programme but we will be very present in Out of Home, on posters and in digital as well as on TV around the first two rounds and then later in the year.
Any chance of stepping in to sponsor the Six Nations?
Phew, I don’t know how deep you think my pockets are. Sure it’s a great tournament but we have to make decisions as a business and there is only so much you can do. We have the Heineken Champions Cup and of course we have the Rugby World Cup.
How soon does the planning for that begin?
From the fans perspective that will really come to life in November with the game against the All Blacks. Numbers one and two in the world less than a year out from Japan will have everyone talking, and hopefully dreaming.
From an internal perspective, we have a lot of people across the Heineken organisation with experience of working on the World Cup and a lot of the planning is based on that learning from the past, adapted by the changes in media which have taken place since 2015.
A lot more of our markets around the world are taking an interest in the tournament now. In the US, in particular, there are a huge number of armchair fans who will be drawn to the big occasion nature of it. That is a very big market for us.
We activate Rugby perhaps more than any other market and in many ways, we act as an internal consultant to our global partners. The team in Amsterdam is in regular contact with us here in Dublin checking the touchpoints that are already well in development.
Back to the Heineken Champions Cup then how visible will you be away from the grounds?
We have major promotions running across Tesco, Dunnes, SuperValu, independent retailers and off-licences and will have strong visibility.
We will also be going out to thousands of pubs across the country with visibility packs and matchday activations.
It’s great to be back. Ireland fell back in love with the tournament last year. When we are doing well the tournament thrives and that’s what we want to be part of.