This week Bord Gáis Energy extended its partnership with the GAA to the end of 2025, making this a sixteen-year commitment that began with the U21 Championship as it was at the time back in 2009 and now includes the All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship and the Legends Tour of Croke Park.
It is not a relationship that rests on its laurels and over recent years has been perhaps the most original innovator in terms of activation, never allowing the dust to settle on one award-winning campaign before coming back with a new way to bring the sport to life and the values of the brand to the fore.
We sat down in Croke Park this week with Irene Gowing the Head of Brand, Sponsorship, and Consumer PR to chat about what the brand gets from its involvement in sport and its ambition to be more than just a badge. She is pictured above with Joe Canning, Dermot Mulligan of Bord Gáis Energy, Gearóid Hegarty and Liam McCarthy in the middle.
Sport for Business: Let’s dive in at the deep end and ask what it is that sponsorship means to Bord Gáis Energy.
Irene Gowing: Right from the throw-in, OK. The first thing to say is that it is a really important part of how we tell our story of who we are and what we do. Let’s rewind a little. Bord Gáis Energy, like Ireland, has changed a lot even over the course of our GAA involvement. We are transitioning at the moment from being known as an energy provider to becoming a net zero home energy services and solutions company.
In Covid and coming out of it we had the opportunity to take a good look at the brand and our purpose. We undertook a lot of research, a lot of customer checkpoints, and a lot of internal review of what we were doing and whether they were the right things.
The customers we are working with have changed as well. Sustainability is a key focus for them as well as us. We want to make sure that no customer is left behind in the sustainability transition and that is why the message of inclusion is so important to us.
We have the perfect platform with our sponsorship of the Senior Hurling Championship to tell that story and that is why it is so important to us.
Hurling is very much a platform for everyone and the new campaign of ‘It’s Anybody’s Game’ is at the heart of what we want to be seen as standing for.
SFB: In this review was it ever on the table that Bord Gáis Energy as a brand might go, in the same way as your sister company British Gas became Centrica?
No, that’s not on the cards for now. We are looking at the proof points of how we connect with a changing population. We are a well-loved family brand and there is a lot of brand value in that.
SFB: So then, why is Hurling where you have continued to position yourselves?
Ireland now has a population of five million and the growth has largely been driven by immigration. Hurling is a very traditional sport and a route for many people to really get to know the country.
It is really inclusive and goes out of its way to welcome a more diverse population in communities all around the country.
It brings people together and that is important to us. The new campaign leads on from where we were last year with our State of Play campaign.
That was driven by inclusion in the world of LGBTQ+. We have some really good internal networks, the Bród and the Reach Networks were instrumental in making sure that we hit the mark with that community.
We listened and we wanted to make hurling be seen as open to everyone. I have a friend whose son is gay and they found last year to be really powerful.
SFB: The campaign was an award winner at the European Sponsorship Awards so it clearly did well. Was that the bedrock then for extending inclusion from sexual identity to other areas?
IG: Yes that is about taking those lessons to wider areas. We wanted to look at the powerful message of inclusion for ethnicity and beyond. The TV campaign will feature a young Syrian boy with hurl in hand, helping him to find his place in his new world.
Sport is a great leveller and we wanted to help to tell that story as a partner of the GAA.
SFB: You’ve never been afraid to exit one theme and go again fresh with another. Is this a one-year hit would you imagine?
IG: Well it’s a development of last year and the reaction from across all of the sectors we see as important is that it is powerful. There is plenty more to come and with the new deal in place until 2025 I could see this having legs.
We are looking for people to tell us stories about how they came to hurling, it’s not just for minority groups but for everyone and anybody.
It is important from our days of ‘Hurling to the Core’ that the core hurling fan was really important but the fact that the core hurling fan now looks different.
In the past, we had to adapt. We did Gaa Gaa Box during Covid and that really hit the spot with those different groups watching from home as we all were. Great idea, and great execution but of its time.
Though we do like to build in threads of the past and the two lads from Cork from Gaa Gaa Box will feature in the new ad as well.
SFB: It really feels as though this is important to you.
IG: You do lots of things at work, lots of things you can be proud of but these campaigns really are special. It gives a real shiver to see the impact they are having both internally and across the wider public.
SFB: How important is sponsorship as part of your overall marketing mix?
IG: Very. We have always over-indexed on sponsorship. There is a standard that you spend around 60 percent of your marketing mix on brand and then the remainder in direct response. Most of our brand spend goes into the sponsorship-related activity.
Utilities aren’t sexy but connecting with customers through a game in Thurles or a production at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre gives us a great platform to talk about what we do.
The values of the GAA and their alignment with ours have remained true since we have been together.
SFB: You mentioned Covid earlier. Has the relationship you built through ticketing and hospitality bounced back to where it was or is there still a way to go there?
IG: That’s a really interesting question. Our affinity levels with our customers increased during Covid because we were seen as supporting the arts and sport at a time when they both were really struggling. The fact we stayed involved was seen as a positive. Gaa Gaa Box was a ridiculously popular activation. Customers loved seeing the craic being had in a similar lockdown position to where they were. We tried the Gift of the GaaB last year but the audience had moved on.
Streaming has become significant and media spend has to follow that so we are investing in GAA Go as well as in traditional Big Box advertising.
Cupán Tae will be coming back in a fashion this year as well so we have changed but we are back in the real world for sure.
SFB: Was the Legends Tour extension a way of making the partnership last longer in a shortened season?
IG: The Legends sponsorship was part of the U20 partnership and it scores incredibly highly. This is the tenth year and the quality moments it delivers are unforgettable.
There will be a host of activations including a possible link between the Theatre and the GAA, the new TV campaign and in stadia activity that we look forward to following through the year.