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Guinness aims to become “world’s number one rugby brand” with Six Nations title sponsorship

Diageo's Rory Sheridan explains how Guinness's naming rights partnership with the Six Nations plays into the brand's wider ambitions within rugby.

  • Diageo-owned drinks brand is the title sponsor of the competition as well as partnering with all four home nations, creating “unique and holistic platform”
  • Title sponsorship offers opportunity to grow Guinness brand in rugby markets worldwide while boosting visibility of Six Nations
  • Ambition is to become “the number one brand associated with rugby worldwide”

Becoming the title sponsor of rugby union’s Six Nations Championship has helped Guinness create a “unique and holistic marketing platform” says Rory Sheridan, head of partnerships for Europe at Diageo, owner of the iconic Irish beer brand.

The story of how Guinness finally became the title sponsor of the Six Nations in December 2018, a year later than expected after Diageo balked at the rights-holder’s initial financial demands, is already a cautionary tale in the sponsorship industry.

Rejecting a £14m (€16m/$18m)-a-year offer from the incumbent naming rights partner, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Six Nations went to market with an expectation of bringing in £17m annually, only to find that it had dramatically over-estimated the perceived value of its assets. A temporary one-year extension was signed with RBS for the 2018 edition of the tournament before, finally, Guinness was confirmed as the title sponsor on a six-year deal from 2019, paying £6m for the first edition and reportedly scaling up to £12m – still only two-thirds of what the Six Nations wanted – for the final year.

Diageo’s Rory Sheridan (centre) with the captains of each of the six nations

At that cost, the move was regarded by many as a no-brainer, particularly given that Guinness’s aspirations within the sport had been an “open secret”, as Sheridan puts it. “We never tried to hide our ambition that, when we moved into sponsoring a number of the home unions and became official beer of the Six Nations, it was part of a potential long-term plan to hopefully get it to a title situation one day,” he says. “There were a number of factors that prevented that happening, most notably the economic slowdown of the early ’10s, which meant we had to steady the ship in terms of major acquisitions and really look after the core business.

“But this isn’t a deal that was done on the spur of the moment or just because of how the opportunity presented itself. It’s really part of a long-term strategic plan and part of the overall direction of Guinness as a business.”

Number one rugby brand

The move extends Guinness’ impressive reach within rugby. The brand has existing partnerships as the Official Beer of the four ‘home nations’ – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – that compete in the tournament. Elsewhere, it is the title partner of the PRO14 cross-border club competition and sponsors various clubs across Ireland and the UK. Was there not a danger that Guinness had already reached saturation point in the sport?

“That was certainly a question we were being asked by the business and asking ourselves internally,” Sheridan says. “We maintain a massive foothold within rugby, so we have to be certain that, in achieving that great accolade of being the title partner, we cut through and get that boost from putting our name front and centre.”

In practice, that means ensuring that Guinness uses the opportunity to reach out to fans who perhaps come to rugby only once a year, or who engage with the sport only casually. In terms of pure numbers, the Six Nations outstrips anything in rugby except the World Cup. Six Nations Rugby Ltd claims its global TV viewership exceeds 120 million each year, while over a million people will attend games live. The 2016 championship was named the world’s best-attended sporting event in a report from European football governing body Uefa, with its 15 matches attracting an average of 72,000 supporters.

“It’s a huge, huge championship that gives us a massive audience to speak to,” says Sheridan. Guinness’ existing sponsorships in rugby have been “solid foundational partnerships which really give us something to build on”, he says, “but by taking that leap, by sticking our heads above the parapet, we feel there’s a real opportunity to talk to a whole new audience.

“It’s about connecting with a much bigger sporting platform and being able to connect at a much higher and deeper level with a significantly larger number of fans. The title status gives us that stature.”

Guinness’s ambition, Sheridan outlines, is to “become the number one brand associated with rugby worldwide”, with the intention, over the course of the six-year agreement, of creating a “super-brand, where to fans and consumers, Guinness and the Six Nations are inseparable”.

Work will be required. A study conducted by GlobalWebIndex in January 2019, surveying nearly 2,000 UK consumers, found that 47 per cent still believed RBS was the title sponsor of the Six Nations. Given that Guinness had not begun activating on its first year in the role at the time the survey was conducted, that may be understandable. It is the 13 per cent who believed the title sponsor was rival brewery Heineken – which sponsors the European Champions Cup and the World Cup – which shows the scale of the challenge, with the two brands set to fight for beer supremacy in rugby.

“The ambition for every brand in sponsorship is always growth – of awareness, of engagement, and ultimately of revenues,” says Sheridan. “Even in our strongest markets there is always room for growth. Our goal is to be the brand of choice for when people decide to have a beer, and having that direct connection through the title sponsorship hopefully means that if you think rugby and you’re having a beer, you think Guinness.”

Guinness replaced their own logo with the word ‘Greatness’ in the Stade de France, an innovative way to comply with the country’s Loi Evin which prohibits the advertising of alcohol (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Both in stadiums and on television, that means making Guinness central to the Six Nations experience. Guinness already had pouring rights at the stadiums of the four home nations, and now its beers will be served at Paris’ Stade de France and Rome’s Stadio Olimpico – two territories in which Sheridan admits “we certainly wouldn’t be a huge brand” and where Diageo is keen to see growth. Its logo is placed in the centre of the pitch in all games, although replaced by the word ‘Greatness’, written in the iconic Guinness font, for matches in Paris, to comply with France’s strict laws around advertising alcohol.

Additionally, the Guinness Surge Bar at Twickenham will host live events involving current and former players throughout the tournament, another point of contact where Guinness will engage fans directly. For its broadcast activations, Guinness has created its first rugby-specific advert since 2015 as it seeks to reinforce the connection between the sport and its beers, as well as a major new responsible drinking campaign, Guinness Clear.

The activation will also involve a significant digital component, which Guinness is using to “be more tailored in terms of our messaging”. As the title sponsor, Guinness’s logo and name are prominent on the Six Nations’ English, French and Italian language social media accounts, and content created by Guinness as part of its activation will be shared on the main Six Nations accounts as well as by Guinness itself.

“Ultimately, it’s a global campaign, so we’re trying to engage consumers in the same way whether they’re in the UK or Ireland, France or Italy, or in rugby-loving countries further afield like Australia, New Zealand or South Africa,” Sheridan says. “But digital gives us that chance to be a bit more tailored and a bit more reactive. We have different posts that are targeted to Welsh fans when Wales win, for example, and the same for the other five teams.”

Deep integration

Such “blanket” activation means that when rugby fans engage with the Six Nations, whether in-stadium, via broadcast or digitally, they are also constantly engaging with Guinness. This strategy dovetails with the individual partnerships with the home nations, which allows Guinness “much deeper penetration of the rugby market” than just having the title sponsorship, says Sheridan.

The byzantine nature of the Six Nations’ commercial setup is thought to have been one of the factors that put off prospective title partners: the championship is jointly operated by the six national federations, each of which own and manage a certain amount of their assets independently. This can mean that within one stadium, some inventory is sold by the Six Nations centrally, while some is sold by the union, a situation which has in the past placed limitations on how sponsors were able to activate.

Sheridan confesses that while the set up feels “a bit like a jigsaw, especially if you were to look at it from the outside”, Guinness’s reach across the competition and experience working within it has made that situation not just far easier to navigate, but offers a “unique platform” that another title sponsor would not have been able to build.

“We primarily go through Six Nations Rugby Ltd,” Sheridan explains, but conversations with each of the six national unions are constant and allow for a “deep integration” of Guinness’s marketing activation.

Guinness’s title sponsorship and partnerships with the unions gives it access to vast array of assets and inventory (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

“Because we have those deep relationships already, we’re really working more as a joint-venture than anything else,” he says. “We have access to all types of assets, particularly IP-related assets, that we wouldn’t have had with just any individual partnership and that we didn’t have when we were the official beer of the Six Nations. When we bring all that together, our partnerships allow us to have that unique, holistic platform to speak in that way and to communicate with our consumers and rugby fans alike.

“So these types of assets that we have access to, we wouldn’t have had them with the union partnerships, and it certainly wouldn’t have given us the scale and stature that we need to be able to have that tone of voice and to be able to speak credibly.”

The relationships engendered with the other major sponsors of the teams have also helped to build out that platform and give Guinness an even deeper and broader reach across rugby.

“We’re used to working with Vodafone in Ireland, BT in Scotland, Isuzu in Wales and O2 in England,” says Sheridan. “The unions have always encouraged cross-pollination of thinking and joint activations, so we’re used to working with several other brands and rights-holders at the same time.”

Demographic expansion

Diageo has been attempting to grow the Guinness brand considerably in recent years, not only targeting new demographics for its flagship stout, but diversifying its portfolio with the introduction of new product lines intended to capitalise on the Guinness marque while capturing consumers who wouldn’t usually drink Guinness. The Hop House 13 lager and the recently-launched Pure Brew non-alcoholic beer are both part of that play, and both will be a part of the activations around the Six Nations over the course of the sponsorship, as Guinness looks to use that platform to show off its expanded range.

The responsible drinking activation – which sees a pint of water re-christened ‘Guinness Clear’ – is “incredibly important to us”, says Sheridan, but it also helps to nudge Guinness into a growing market sector. “We know that the low- to no-alcohol beer category is growing massively, and we wouldn’t be much of a beer business if we weren’t leading that agenda. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about responsibility and moderation, which is something Diageo is strongly behind, but certainly it gives us a massive opportunity to tap into that market and that segment that is growing.”

While the Six Nations activations for 2019 won’t mention the non-alcoholic range – because “at a top-line, master brands comms-level, we wanted to lead with Guinness in the first year” – the combination of the title sponsorship and the launch of the Guinness Clear campaign presents an opportunity for Diageo to push into the growing non-alcoholic space, especially in future years, when Sheridan says they will look to introduce other sub-brands “at an associate level” as the partnership progresses.

A still from Guinness’s ‘The Purse’ campaign, the brand’s first rugby-specific advert in four years

The Women’s Six Nations is another opportunity for growth and demographic expansion. Previous title sponsors of the men’s competition didn’t have a partnership with the women’s competition built in, but it is something Diageo “insisted that we have” when negotiating the deal, because “as a business, we have a massive agenda in inclusivity and diversity,” says Sheridan. Though not the title partner of the Women’s Six Nations, Guinness still intends to activate heavily around the matches in its capacity as associate sponsor.

“The things we were most excited by going into this were the Guinness Clear campaign, and the Women’s Six Nations,” says Sheridan. “We’ll be pushing a lot of social media around the women’s games but as far as we’re concerned, the campaign is gender neutral, because we see them as equal and see that as the best way of communicating with our target audience.

“We have a total Six Nations activation plan, and that’s the brief the business has been given from on high, it’s the one we’re working to, all our agency partners, the Six Nations, the home unions are all working to. They’re excited that a brand of the size and scale and stature of Guinness, with its credentials around rugby, is treating the women’s game as equal. This is new to us. We’re entering territory where we haven’t before, and we may not get it right first time, but I’ll be damn sure we’re going to put every effort into making sure that we do and we want to be seen as something that can enhance the women’s game, not a badging exercise.”

With the Six Nations itself also targeting major growth of the women’s championship in the core territories and the men’s internationally, Diageo is aware that the partnership cannot be one-way. While North America remains a “key growth territory” for the company, the Guinness brand already has a strong presence there, and there is a hope that the association can help raise the profile of both the competition and the beer. NBC is showing every game from the 2019 Six Nations for the second year of a multi-year partnership, and Sheridan feels Guinness has come on board at a good time for that expansion.

“Rugby has a small core [in the US] but it’s growing at a pretty massive rate,” he says. “There’s a real opportunity there, if the symbiosis of both brands can work well together, for us to create a whole new audience for rugby in the States. I don’t think anyone does brand-building as well as Diageo, and if we can bring some of that to bear on growing the sport around the world, become a part of that journey, can only be beneficial to us as well. It’s an exciting time to be part of rugby and that’s why we’re so happy to be where we are.”

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