When Sports Are In The Spirit, The Message Is Sponsor Responsibly

Two words have changed the way that beer and alcohol companies do business with sports teams, events and athletes: Drink responsibly.

Back in the real days of "Mad Men," the touting of alcohol and cigarettes in ads and on TV shows had few boundaries. The effects of that era continued into the 1970s but rapidly disintegrated as studies regarding the dangers of exposing underage consumers to such advertising -- as well as the dangers of smoking and drinking to consumers of all ages -- became more accurate, and dedicated groups such as MADD became more pronounced.

Beer and alcohol advertising then morphed into other marketing venues, such as NASCAR's Winston Cup Series, which was sponsored by the R.J. Reynolds' brand from 1971 to 2003 (and is now under the sponsorship of Sprint). The Busch Series, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, ran from 1982 to 2007 (and is now the Nationwide Series). Beer and alcohol companies picked up the gauntlet not only in pedal-to-the-metal sports but also in tennis and golf, where loyal consumers had money to spend and ROI made the alliances worthwhile for marketers.

"Many alcoholic beverage companies walk a fine line when they advertise or sponsor a sporting event, team or venue. There are certain concerns that most other sponsors do not have to deal with," said Robert Tuchman, EVP at sports and entertainment sponsorship and promotion firm Premiere Global Sports, New York, and author of 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live. "Alcohol works well though, especially when it is sold at the venue. You are reinforcing your brand. There are not too many products [which consumers can see] branding for at an event and then, a second later, go buy it."

The people who run sports events and own teams or such venues as Coors Field, Miller Park and Busch Stadium know that they are reaching and/or influencing audiences who are a varying mix of legal age adults and under-age fans. Whether it's an alliance between the Los Angeles Lakers and Proximo Spirits' 1800 Silver Tequila, which in August signed a multimillion-dollar deal including multi-media advertising and on- and off-premise logo rights, or between NASCAR and Diageo, which includes several levels of activation, the challenges are unique and appropriately serious.

"The beer and spirits companies involved in NASCAR all communicate messages of responsibility while supporting the drivers and teams our fans follow," said Andrew Giangola, director of business communications for NASCAR. "Beer and spirits companies involved in the sport must have marketing campaigns strongly grounded in responsibility while following advertising and marketing guidelines set by NASCAR that are consistent with the Distilled Spirits Council's advertising code." NASCAR also mandates that drivers under 21 cannot have beer or spirits sponsorships.

Creative companies have fashioned "Drink Responsibly" messages that both sell and warn about the product. A recent TV spot from Diageo's Captain Morgan rum, for example, showed two guys coming out of a sports bar, walking into a pizza place and ordering a pie. The counterman asks, "For here or to go?" "Delivery," they reply, followed by a scene in which the pizza man drives them and their pie home, with the message, "Always designate a driver. Drink responsibly."

"A dedicated portion of advertising by spirits companies in NASCAR is solely focused on encouraging responsible drinking decisions, with all remaining advertising including a responsible-behavior tag," said Giangola.

The economy and other marketing challenges have forced some beer and spirits companies to rethink their sports alliances. This year, Anheuser-Busch InBev said it would end its sponsorship of the LPGA Michelob Ultra Open after seven years but that Michelob Ultra would remain the official beer of the tour. And Brown-Forman said it would end its Jack Daniel's NASCAR program and would not extend a sponsorship of Richard Childress Racing's No. 07 team, which began in 2005.

Yet, in addition to being exposed to mass audiences, such as Anheuser-Busch reaching some 90 million viewers with its Super Bowl ads, there are significant reasons beer and spirits brands still activate in sports. "Most sponsors receive pouring rights [and] are able to recoup some of their sponsorship fee," said Tuchman. "They also are able to sample to potential new clients, so the intangible aspects are pretty good."

Diageo's Crown Royal is a good example of a brand being integrated throughout a sport. Crown sponsored NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray in 2009 and will be with Matt Kenseth in 2010 as part of a multi-year deal with Roush Fenway Racing, has a track deal with Richmond International Raceway and is an official NASCAR partner. Concurrently, Crown Royal has also made sizable donations on behalf of McMurray and NASCAR to The Century Council, a not-for-profit organization funded by a group of spirits companies (including Diageo) that seeks to "eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking and promotes responsible decision making regarding beverage alcohol."

Unfortunately, some current and former athletes have themselves have not gotten the message. In the past year, former NBA star and current TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley and the WNBA's Diana Taurasi were arrested for DUI, and the NFL's Donté Stallworth pleaded guilty to killing a pedestrian while driving under the influence.

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