Six Nations 2017: Why Ireland vs England is "massive" for sponsors Guinness on St. Patrick's Day weekend

 
Joe Hall
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Cheltenham Festival - Champion Day
Punters at the Cheltenham Festival, where Diageo has set up a "Guinness Village" for over 25 years (Source: Getty)

As far as weekends go, they don’t come much bigger for Guinness.

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, means pint pullers around the world will have spent an evening with one hand permanently affixed to the Guinness pump — it is estimated that the annual celebration can double the average day sales of the Diageo-owned brand.

Yet it’s also the weekend in which the brand’s two biggest sport sponsorships in Western Europe are populating TV screens, newspaper pages and social media feeds.

Guinness is not only the official beer of the Six Nations and both the Ireland and England teams who go head-to-head in the tournament’s curtain call event on Saturday evening, it is a visible partner of the Cheltenham Festival which attracts over 60,000 people to the racecourse every year.

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“It’s a massive weekend,” Diageo’s head of sponsorship for Western Europe, Rory Sheridan, told City A.M.

“This is the biggest weekend of the year for the Guinness storehouse as well, we’re doing about 6,000 visitors a day. I bet this weekend there’s going to be a lot of English among them.”

England’s trip to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin was billed ahead of the Six Nations as a potential tournament decider.

However, the home side’s indifferent form this year means England arrive with the title already in the bag. Although the fixture still carries its fair share of jeopardy and intrigue — England have the opportunity to break New Zealand’s unbeaten test match record and win a successive grand slam — it may not attract as many eyeballs as previously anticipated.


Rory Sheridan poses with the Guinness Pro12, another rugby property sponsored by the brand (Source: Getty)

In years gone by, that slightly smaller audience would have been felt far more heavily in the marketing offices of brands like Guinness, which have attached themselves to big sporting occasions.

Yet Sheridan says the value of Diageo’s sports sponsorships is derived not solely from visible inventory but from building long-standing associations.

The firm has pouring deals in Six Nations venues — “getting pints in hands” — but also sets up branded destinations such as the Guinness Village at Cheltenham where anyone with a bet on Gold Cup winner Sizing John could have gone to celebrate with a glass of the black stuff.

“We do so a tangible uplift in our volume around major rugby and sporting events, so we can attribute that to the footprint we’ve created for ourselves,” said Sheridan.

“We have long legacy deals, but these aren’t sentimental. Not only are they still valuable to us as a business, but we’ve got massive credentials and have been connected for so long that any activity we do using them stands for something.

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“Rugby and horse racing are events of substance. They mean a lot to people. By their nature they are rigorous, hard-working, full of people with integrity. People mucking out the stables at 5 o’clock in the morning, the volunteers in grassroots rugby. Caring and meaning. They really match our brand values. They genuinely deliver for our business and we’ve just adapted how we activate those partnerships.

“The future is coming so fast, yet the great historical and legacy events still shine through even with so much noise and competition from so many other sports, politics and newsworthy items.”

Terms like ‘shared values’ and ‘complimentary culture’ - they’ve become so commonplace in sponsorships discussions to be easily dismissed with an eyeroll as superfluous marketing jargon dressing up hard-nosed business decisions.

Yet when Sheridan conjures images of mud, sweat and tradition to draw the link between Guinness and the two events this weekend, the link does not seem ridiculous.

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Both the sports and the brand have existed in three different centuries, have grown from pastoral beginnings into globally-recognised properties in a digital age.

Now a rapidly changing sports marketplace is being disrupted by shifting consumer habits, live streaming and social media and has left some scrabbling sponsors scrabbling to keep up.

While vibrant and emerging challenger sports properties such as UFC, Tough Mudder and eSports attract big brands eager to speak to their blossoming millennial audiences, Sheridan has been careful not to be swept away in the hype.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for an alcohol to badge ourselves as title sponsor of brands like Tough Mudder or triathlons or anything like that,” he says.

Rugby Fans Gather For Six Nations England Versus Scotland Crunch Match
(Source: Getty)

“We’ve been approached before in the past but we haven’t rushed into anything or landed on our philosophies towards it.

“Other sports, eSports, drone racing. There’s definitely something in that but throwing a logo on somewhere and being a badging exercise is a waste of everyone’s time, including ourselves. We would only get involved somewhere where there was a natural fit.”

As an established brand that has been a staple of British life for generations, Sheridan doesn’t think Guinness needs to chase clicks from a younger crowd in order to retain that status.

“We have always relied on a very traditional media platform and that will connect absolutely with what you would call our traditional and existing consumer base,” he explains.

“But the consumers of the future are operating differently. We’re doing our best to keep up with the rate of change.

“The marketing jargon about ‘impressions’, the number of likes and shares, is all well and good but consumers now are looking for experiences. Brands like ourselves are part of the celebration whether it’s Pimms at Royal Ascot and Wimbledon, Johnnie Walker at an F1 grand prix or Guinness at Cheltenham.

“We can enhance experiences.”

Later today, there may be more than a few bleary-eyed St. Patrick’s Day revellers and giddy Ireland and England supporters who will attest to that.

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