‘Rugby can do multiple things for us’: An inside look at Guinness’ approach to sponsorship

It might not be an official sponsor of the Rugby World Cup but Guinness has big plans for the sport during the tournament, concocting a blend of media firsts and aggressive on the ground activations to get 500,000 people to try the drink over the next five months.

The relationship the black stuff has with the sport is second to none. It may have been involved in other sports and currently on the hunt for new partnerships, but rugby’s inherent qualities of integrity and passion chime with the brand better than the rest. It’s why this month’s World Cup represents such a key period for Guinness to give its revamped ethos on 'Made of More' to a wider audience who may be more open to trying the drink as they sit down to watch the world’s best team’s battle for rugby’s top prize.

Despite its inability to refer directly to the tournament in its marketing, Guinness is leveraging its status as the sponsor of the competing England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland teams to give it the credibility to talk about the sport now. It’s an approach likely to be adopted by other advertisers once the tournament begins as they attempt to play outside commercial rules.

To do this, Guinness will tell the uplifting stories of how Wales legend Gareth Thomas and former South Africa winger, Ashwin Willemse overcame hardships during their careers with the help of their teams.

Thomas’ ad explains how his greatest challenge off the pitch rather than on it when he revealed he was gay and was helped through the period by his teammates. Willemse’s film documents how he escaped a life of crime to pursue a glittering career in the sport that peaked when he became a world champion in 2007. The films are backed by two documentaries that will explore both stores in greater detail.

The ads and their accompanying documentaries will be pumped out through the brand’s social media and YouTube channels as well as through display inventory on mobile and desktop. The media plan aims to build on the brewer’s ‘Roadblock’ initiative earlier this month (9 September), whereby it secured prominent media buys across what it’s marketing manager for Western Europe Nick Britton claimed was “every single screen consumers and interact with”. In other words, targeted buys that would reach similar audiences were synched across key channels, while heavy buys were made on Facebook and Twitter to ensure the ads were seen by as many of the same people as possible.

It’s the latest example of Guinness-owner Diageo’s more progressive approach to media planning that has already seen it takeover all three ad breaks during an episode of The Jonathan Ross Show in 2013.

“The next few weeks are very important for Guinness in terms of what we’re trying to achieve via rugby,” Diageo’s head of sponsorship for Western Europe Rory Sheridan told The Drum. “Our work with rugby is all about heritage. It’s also about using the sponsorships to be contemporary and giving fans what they want. Ultimately, it’s about getting pints into hands to drive volumes.”

Its activity in pubs and on supermarket shop floors is key to pouring these volumes. Some 10,000 point of sale kits have been dished out to pubs and clubs nationwide, while 300,000 glassware packs are being made available to shoppers. The brand’s partnership with bar finder app Matchpint is also being used to get drinkers on-side, offering a ‘buy one get one free’ deal to those who check in at participating outlets.

While a significant portion of its rugby activity is focused on Western Europe, the Rugby World offers a chance to take Guinness to farther shores. Africa and Asia are the top priorities though they’re both markets where interest in the sport pales in comparison to football, which the brand was rumoured earlier this year to have considered adding the Premier League to its existing (albeit lightweight) ties to the sport.

At the time The Drum reported that sources close to the discussions revealed that the brand was not prepared to get caught in a bidding war for the lucrative rights that was also said to be contested by Mastercard and Ford.

Sheridan reiterated the company’s decision not to comment on the report but did not deny it outright.

“The only thing I can say is that different rights holders across the world and different disciplines talk to us on a regular basis and we talk to them,” he added. “Guinness is a global brand with continued global ambitions to bring the black stuff to any consumer that has not had the chance to sample it. We’ll always look at any opportunity that can help us on our journey."

Coming back to its immediate plans for sponsorship, Guinness is to continue playing to its strengths in order to exploit the boost in interest and media coverage over the next two months. Britton said: “The way you differentiate is not about the sponsorships you do or don’t have. It’s what you do with them and how you operate in that space.

“We believe that the activity that we’re doing in and around rugby really stands us apart from the competition. We seem to have exceptional resonance with consumers in the way we’re activating rugby at the moment. Part of the benefit of rugby is that it can do multiple jobs for us as a sponsorship platform.”

Guinness ties to rugby span the Pro12 rugby tournament as well as a number of clubs including Leinster and Munster. It was also one of the head sponsors for the Aviva Premiership.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.