The Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 takes place this weekend with Munster and Leinster both hosting their games against French opposition behind closed doors.

Getting the tournament played at all has been an achievement with a number of games cancelled in the group stage and has been the result of significant input from multiple stakeholders.

One of those is the tournament sponsor Heineken and we sat down this week, remotely of course, with Ronan McCormack, Senior Brand Manager for Sport with Heineken Ireland.

Sport for Business: How much of a challenge has it been to activate your sporting partnerships over the past year?

Ronan McCormack: As for almost everybody involved in the sports industry, it has been a hugely challenging 12 months to say the least. This is especially so for us in Heineken Ireland when our own sector and On Trade customers have been impacted so significantly.

This time last year, we were gearing up for the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals in front of full stadia at the Aviva and across Europe, leading to the final which was scheduled to take place in Marseille. COVID-19 was a huge shock to the industry and resulted in us having to show great agility in re-working plans and focus areas for 2020 and 2021.

It was to the eternal credit of the EPCR team and everybody involved in rugby that the season was completed. We’re an official partner to Euro 2020 but we are awaiting news on whether or not the four games planned for Dublin will happen and what the position might be in relation to fan attendance.

However, regardless of that, the popularity of the tournament and our association with it affords us a great opportunity to connect with and engage consumers this summer. As a football fan myself, I am really excited and looking forward to the arrival of the 11th of June!

The main activation challenge has been losing presence around the big, match day experience. Having a beer with friends and or family is central to that experience, whether is in the ground or in your local before or after the game. So, I think we have all really missed that and the associated visibility on Heineken Champions Cup day that goes with it.

It has also affected our ability to activate our important partnerships with Connacht Rugby and Ulster Rugby. The other side is that people’s homes really became mini stadia as we all devoured as many games as possible on TV. Therefore, working with our Off Trade customers and ensuring we had strong activations and visibility around our key platforms was important.

An example of this was our Experiences promotion, which, for the first time brought all our sponsorships across Rugby, Football and Music under one umbrella. That was a great success for us in the Off Trade back in October.

Thankfully the development of a new brand campaign centred on rugby continued and that is testament to just how important we see rugby being to the Heineken brand in Ireland. The campaign is entitled ‘The Perfect Match’, and viewers may have spotted it on TV during recent sports coverage. The campaign celebrates the journey of rivalry between three couples who happen to support opposing teams.



SFB: We love the new campaign. Was that an Irish driven initiative and who were the partners you worked with to deliver it?

RMcC: Glad you like it, Rob, we are very proud of it. It was directed by the fantastic Karien Cherry and celebrates the journey of rugby rivalry; following three couples, pitted against each other as their rival teams face off.

In terms of our partners, the concept was developed by Publicis Dublin and Heineken Ireland, in collaboration with agency partners Thinkhouse and Red Star. As I touched on earlier, it looks ahead to the return of ‘normality’ when rugby rivalries can be enjoyed in the pub on match day.

It is a testament to the strength and power of the Heineken brand in Ireland, and the importance we place in supporting rugby, that the campaign has happened. We also hope it is a good news story for a company and industry that has been so negatively impacted by COVID-19 in an unprecedented way over the last 12 months.


SFB: Has there been any difference between the way you’ve been able to work within Football and Rugby across your two key sports properties.

RMcC: In the broadest sense, the main difference is that the relationship with UEFA Champions League (UCL) is largely managed by our colleagues in Amsterdam. The main reason for this is just the sheer scale, reach and global footprint of the tournament. Well over 120 markets activate UCL across the world so it has to be coordinated and managed centrally.

Euro 2020 has been similar but we have fostered a strong relationship locally with key stakeholders like Dublin City Council, given the planned involvement of Dublin as a host city.

Rugby is different. It is a massive priority in Ireland for us. As a result, a tournament like Heineken Champions Cup is one we are ‘very hands-on with’ both with our colleagues in Amsterdam and directly with the team in EPCR. In addition, we have other valuable rugby partnerships – Connacht Rugby, Ulster Rugby and Rugby Players Ireland – we do not have such local partnerships across football.


SFB: Has the motivation been to stay present in fans minds or to drive more at home purchasing?

RMcC: It is both really. On the one hand, our branded presence in stadia and on TV helps drive our awareness and association with sport. Our new campaign is also important in driving awareness of Heineken and its association with rugby.

As mentioned, normally the On Trade is very much part of that big match day experience but unfortunately that has not been the case for the past year. That said, we hope there is some light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel and look forward to that day. Having a beer at home whilst watching a game on TV – be it alone or with friends has become increasingly popular.

Our ‘Perfect Match’ campaign captures a sense of that magic match day occasion – in both the On or Off Trade. We will activate the campaign in over 800 stores to engage shoppers in the Off Trade. The reaction from customers to date has been fantastic. We look forward to some much needed better news for our On Trade partners in the not too distant future. We know how much they miss the Heineken Champions Cup match day experience.


SFB: What have been some of the ways in which you’ve been able to expand your digital activity in lieu of a physical presence?

RMcC: It is difficult, Rob. With the On Trade and stadia closed we really do miss both the interaction with people and the lost brand presence, so it is very difficult to compensate for that. That said, our digital spend, which has been growing for many years pre COVID, accelerated and a stronger digital lens was placed in all we did, be it activity on social to drive awareness and conversion, investing in enhanced presence in store, enhanced digital pitch-side advertising, or ensuring we have superb digital content ready to support our publicans when they re-open; digital is to the fore in all we do.



SFB: How have you worked together with rights holders to ensure that you could remain relevant during the massive disruption to the tournaments?

RMcC: We are truly lucky to work with great partners. To be honest, I think the first couple of months we were like the dazed boxer after taking a flurry of punches, confused as to what was just unleashed on us as we staggered to find the corner to take a seat.

However, once the reality of the situation was understood we just got on with it. We worked on a really well received content series with EPCR, hosted by the great Keith Wood. This looked back at classic Heineken Cup games over the past 25 years and it was fantastic to revisit some epic rugby games etched, forever, in the memory of the hearts and minds of Irish rugby fans.

We introduced a new ‘Star of The Match’ property to increase brand attribution and presence on match day. We overhauled our pitch-side advertising and media backdrops etc. We also produced a whole new suite of digital assets to promote match fixtures. So, the lock down and break from match day operations, as unwelcome as it was, actually afforded us a little space to work on those areas.

With UEFA Champions League (UCL), we were able to offer customers the opportunity to take part in virtual events with UCL legends, we also ramped up our digital assets to help trade customers promote UCL. Finally, we have some exciting plans for Euro 2020 so more on that in the coming weeks.


SFB: You are long term partners of the Heineken Champions Cup. Has that ‘institutional’ understanding of the long game been a positive in how you’ve been able to approach so many different short-term problems?

RMcC: We’ve been partners with European Professional Club Rugby, and previously European Rugby Cup, since the inception of the professional game and formation of the Heineken Cup in 1995. So yes, you could say we are ‘institutional’ at this stage.

We have a great working relationship with the EPCR team and it’s a partnership Heineken is very proud of, both from a return for the brand over the 26 year period and in terms of how our investment has been used to help grow the game across Europe. Even looking at the Irish teams alone, it’s incredible to sit here and think about how far the provinces have come since those early days and how many of the most memorable Heineken Champions Cup games down the years featured our teams. So, yes, that relationship we have built up through the years really came to the fore during so much uncertainty last year.


SFB: How hopeful or confident are you that when the season kicks off again in the Autumn, that we will be back to a more regular approach to fans watching in stadia and in pubs?

RMcC: If only I knew, Rob! We all have to be hopeful that the situation will have improved by Autumn. However, public safety has to continue to be the priority. There is so much uncertainty and the last 12 months has taught us all that this awful pandemic laughs in the face of any kind of confident planning. All I can guarantee at this point is that once people are able to attend a game be it in stadia or their much loved local, we will have a cold, refreshing, fresh pint of Heineken or Heineken 0.0% waiting for them and their friends or family. We really do hope that day is not too far away.


SFB: Has the pandemic and lockdown halted what was building as a strong shift towards 0.0 marketing being the dominant brand across the sports properties?

RMcC: Our approach locally to sports properties is largely in keeping with our overall marketing strategy for the Heineken family. That revolves around integrating 0.0% into all Heineken communications wherever possible to remind consumers that there is a Heineken variant available, regardless of the occasion. This is evident across our new brand campaign, activation, displays in-store and such. That approach started back with the Rugby World Cup in 2019. So, in the main, it is more about integrating 0.0%, as we also have across Heineken Champions Cup and UEFA Champions League. Heineken 0.0% leads our UEFA Europa League sponsorship and that is an exciting new partnership for us. Our approach reflects how important both moderation and the responsible consumption of all Heineken products is to us.


Here is Heineken’s ‘The Perfect Match’ TV commercial


Sport for Business Partners