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Good things come to those who wait: Guinness and the Six Nations

I wasn’t surprised to see Guinness revealed in December 2018 as the new title sponsor of the Six Nations. Diageo’s flagship brand was always a prime suspect to replace RBS, the championship’s title sponsor since 2003.

Like any prime suspect, Guinness had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

Diageo’s deep pockets – it spent £1.8bn (€2bn/$2.2bn) on marketing across its brands in 2018 – were the means; the affinity between Guinness and rugby – and the brand and business opportunity presented by the Six Nations – was the motive; and the Six Nations’ protracted and much-publicised difficulty in replacing RBS provided the opportunity.

It was a deal waiting to happen but, like a pint of Guinness, long in the making.

Diageo had previously taken runs at the Six Nations title sponsorship when windows of opportunity looked like opening in between RBS contract renewals.

And though RBS persisted, Guinness remained a Six Nations insider – as a secondary sponsor of the Six Nations itself, and of all four British and Irish rugby unions.

So it was inevitable that two years ago, when the Six Nations made its now-infamous decision to reject RBS’s £14m-per-year renewal offer and go to market seeking £17m, Diageo would be one of their first calls.

But like everyone else the Six Nations approached, Diageo balked at the price tag, forcing the Six Nations into a stop-gap one-year deal with RBS in 2018 – the bank paying way below what it had originally offered for a longer-term renewal – and then back to the market.

And still it took another year before Guinness was signed and announced.

Why did it take so long? And why did the Six Nations find it so hard to replace RBS?

The answer is that despite its stature, the Six Nations is actually a tough sell.

It has a quirky core footprint that aligns with few businesses and, like rugby itself, minority appeal in other major markets.

It’s highly cluttered, as the six participating unions all have their own individual sponsors across a wide range of categories – a major deterrent for brands in those categories (though not for Guinness, given its existing deals with the four British and Irish unions).

It has a short activation window, over only a few weekends.

For a beer brand like Guinness, its value is also significantly reduced by the prohibition of alcohol advertising in France, as the country delivers 40 per cent of the Six Nations’ total audience.

And when you remember that the Six Nations went looking for a new sponsor in the softest UK sponsorship market in years, at a number that always looked unrealistic, the result was inevitable.

The Six Nations became a price-taker, not a price-setter, which was a case of history repeating itself because the Six Nations struggled last time it was in the market for a new sponsor back in 2002 – despite the twin attractions of a new exclusive UK broadcast deal with the BBC and an all-conquering England team.

Like Guinness, RBS signed in November – only two months before the start of the championship.

Also like Guinness, RBS signed for a bargain price – just £3.5m for its first season as sponsor in 2003. Guinness is reportedly paying £6m for its first season sixteen years later.

So how can we expect to see Guinness activate the Six Nations?

An iconic ad campaign – a Guinness hallmark – is a given, as a priority in year one must be not only to brand the championship but, even more importantly, to emotionalise the sponsorship – somewhere RBS could never go following the collapse of its business and brand.

Another given is a major corresponding push at point of sale, the ground zero of the beer business and in Guinness’ intense battle with Heineken for dominance in the rugby experience.

Key to this and to the overall Guinness strategy will be to unite its messaging to appeal to both older core rugby fans, whose affinity with Guinness is high, and younger ‘Big Eventers’, to attempt to bring them into the brand as part of their rugby experience.

Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly chief executive of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.