Joining the Party: How Diageo Becomes Part of Culture and Experiences Through Partnerships
Based in New York City, Ed oversees the full Diageo portfolio of spirts and beer brands.
Ed started his career as an intern at Diageo’s Guinness plc and in his first role managed distributors in the Caribbean. He then moved into a strategy role before spending a couple of years at L’Oréal. Ed then re-joined Diageo and had a variety of roles across the world including marketing director for Australia, marketing and innovation director for Latin America and the Caribbean, and global category director for vodka. rum and gin, which included leading brands such as Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Tanqueray.
In this interview with podcast host Jim Andrews, Ed takes a deep dive into what the spirits marketer’s brands achieve by partnering with the NFL, MLS, teams and other properties. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: I’d like to start with the big picture as it relates to Diageo and sports partnerships before we discuss some of your specific relationships with leagues and teams. What does sponsorship accomplish for a spirits company and its brands? What are your goals and objectives for these programs?
Ed: If we take a step back and look at what Diageo is all about, we see that as an alcoholic drinks business we want people to enjoy drinks responsibly. Our purpose at Diageo is about celebrating life every day, everywhere. When best done, our brands are enjoyed by families and friends when they get together and have those great moments, be it holidays like Thanksgiving, meeting friends at a bar or restaurant, or going to a sporting event, the theater or whatever it might be.
So we start with our business being about the celebration of life and our brands being at the heart of people having good times. We then go to sports being a huge part of people’s lives. That’s why we want to participate in the right way in sports. We know when people go to games, they are going to enjoy a drink, hopefully responsibly, which is what we want.
Being part of that sporting experience, whether it’s at a stadium, or being in a bar near a stadium watching a game, or just being in a bar anywhere in the world watching a game or sitting at home with family or friends, there is definitely a role for the responsible enjoyment of beverages.
So that’s one piece about enjoyment. A second piece that’s linked to that is experience and how you make it an amazing experience. The eating, drinking and being with friends augments being at the game or watching the game and makes it an overall more memorable and better experience. What can our brands do to make the sporting experience better? We’re in the experience game, delivering great experiences that allow people to have fun together.
The third big pillar for us is reach. Millions of people watch sports. The NFL is loved by over 100 million people. One of the basics of brand building is to get your brand in front of millions of people and build awareness. Sport is an amazing vehicle for us to put our brands in front of many, many people. Those three things, enjoyment, experience and reach are the reasons we want to participate in sports.
Jim: You mentioned in a recent interview regarding Johnnie Walker’s successful partnership with HBO and Game of Thrones that you were seeking borrowed equity. Does that concept apply to sports partnerships as well?
Ed: It totally does. The Game of Thrones sponsorship was us being able to leverage and candidly be carried on the back of what was an amazing franchise at the start of its final season. We were bringing together two strong brands and hopefully there is a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial.
The other big piece with Game of Thrones was embedding brands in culture. The best brands, especially in our industry, are brands that are built through culture and know how to play and win in culture. It’s not forcing yourself into culture but knowing how to show up in the right area of culture. Whether it is sports, music or entertainment, who is seen drinking and enjoying your brand and where? Game of Thrones did a great job for Johnnie Walker in helping to make it very relevant in terms of culture.
If you take that into sport, us being able to work with the NFL and leverage what is clearly a hugely powerful brand and franchise is extremely important. It’s the reason you partner with them and pay the sponsorship monies to have the NFL logo associated with your brands. We value that enormously. They have done a brilliant job of building that brand over the last 60 or so years and we want to be a part of that. So there is a bit of borrowed equity, plus the culture piece—there is a massive culture around football that we want to be part of.
Jim: Diageo is well known as being a data-driven marketer. Does that apply to evaluating the success of sponsorships? How do you measure whether your partnerships are working?
Ed: It starts with setting a long-term vision. The current objective for our NFL partnership is the opportunity for our brands to participate on multiple occasions around the biggest sporting events in the U.S. Then you get into the detail of what that looks like and how our brands can show up.
It’s also the scale of the partnership. The ability for us to take that NFL logo at a basic level and leverage that across the country at scale. How many events can you show up at? At the retail level, how many displays? How many places can you communicate with consumers?
We look at how we can leverage at multiple levels, from communications—the advertising we want to do in and around games—to the experiences we can do within stadia and around stadia to the work we can do with our retail partners in on-premise (bars and restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores and, where we can do it, grocery stores).
You put KPIs around all that, including hopefully selling more because of the partnership! In addition to sales, you look at engagement metrics in terms of affinity, the ability to land a message with so many more consumers, which ultimately comes into brand equity. Around each of our partnerships we have very clear metrics, which tend to be about reach, engagement, effectiveness of our programming, and ultimately are we driving sales, are we growing our net sales and our profitability as well. And obviously within all of that we look at what we need to invest and how it fits into our overall P&L.
We have lots of data. We have a great measurement and evaluation team. They do a lot of work pulling data together for any deal we are doing to work out what we think the payback is going to be. We look at the ROI before we sign any deal, that’s for sure.
In addition to those metrics at the brand level, the other big piece for a partnership like the NFL is the core corporate messaging you want to land. We want to land a broader responsibility message. When we first started advertising in NFL games two or three years ago by buying spots in games, a big part of our agenda was and is around responsible drinking and what we call “positive drinking.” It’s a big part of our Society 2030 goals, which is Diageo’s 10-year action plan to help create an inclusive and sustainable world.
Jim: Was there something in particular that led you to expanding the relationship with the NFL beyond the advertising you just mentioned, and beyond the dozen or so team and stadium deals that you had, and signing the leaguewide deal in the summer of 2021?
Ed: We felt really good about what we were doing. Our ability to land our messaging at scale by advertising during NFL games was great. We wanted to take that message and do even more of it. The 12 or so partnerships we had with teams were very effective, but we wanted to scale that even more and make it broader. We learned from what we have done with the MLS, where we have a partnership on a national level that gives us the ability to talk about soccer and the game in general, plus we have nine team relationships on the ground that allow us in core geographies to really activate in stadia and around the city. We thought it would be great to have the same ability with the NFL, not just activating with the 12 teams—which we now have expanded to 17 teams we partner with—but go national and be able to activate in 50 states, which is amazing.
Jim: Let’s talk about the MLS, the different objectives you have there versus the NFL, and the origin story of how that partnership came about.
Ed: We were talking with the MLS originally about doing something for our Don Julio brand, linking it to games between the U.S. and Mexico and the connection there. It didn’t end up being quite right for Don Julio, but the MLS was interesting in that it’s still an emerging sport in the U.S. despite being in its 26th season now. You also have the building to the 2026 World Cup, huge growth on both the men’s and women’s sides, and the interesting dynamic that it skews heavily Hispanic and Latinx as well.
We looked at some of our brands, specifically Captain Morgan and where we wanted to take it. We want Captain to be in culture. It’s always been almost a competitor to beer in many respects. It’s a fun brand to enjoy with friends on fun occasions. And we have other brands in that space. We saw a fit and an opportunity with the profile of the MLS—how it skews slightly younger, more multicultural and a little bit more female—to recruit a new generation of fans into Captain Morgan.
We’re in it for the long term. We’re building to the World Cup and beyond. (We don’t sponsor the World Cup to be clear.) We want to be part of soccer in this country as it grows. It’s different from the NFL clearly. It has less eyeballs on TV so although it’s growing, it’s less of a media deal. But our ability to be part of the fan groups, to be part of the experience at the stadium has been fantastic, so we feel really good about it and they have been brilliant partners as well.
Jim: For lack of a better term, Diageo is a “house of brands” with a wide range of products. Are sponsorship decisions taken at both the corporate and brand level?
Ed: In the old days, it was a bit of brand by brand and local teams—and that’s not wrong—but we’ve tried to get more strategic. We’ve had lots of local team deals that are great deals across a variety of sports, where the brand works with a local partner and a local distributor to do a deal. But what we’ve tried to do is take a step back and say, across specifically three or four of our big brands, notably Crown Royal, Captain, Smirnoff and Guinness—where we have a partnership with Notre Dame and the alumni of Notre Dame—we want these big brands participating in sport.
If we’re going to do that, we want to do it with a degree of scale and reach X number of consumers. If it’s Crown, it’s millions of consumers across the country. If it’s Captain, it’s millions of consumers and we want to reach a new generation of consumers. If it’s Guinness, we want to reach that broad swath of consumers who love the brand and remind them of it on a more regular basis.
So we took a step back and took a look at every deal we had. We have specific deals in local markets that we will keep if they are in strongholds for certain brands, but we have tried to centralize it. Brands will absolutely recommend partnerships and we will look at those in terms of where we want to take the brand.
We have also brought in resources internally to manage sports. We have a brands and culture team that manages a lot of our partnerships—we work with great people like Wasserman as well. We have a head of sports marketing who works with the brand teams to coordinate. So it’s a bit of both. The brand teams run their brands and absolutely should be recommending what they want to do. For example, for Crown at the moment we are looking at getting into the WNBA, which is an exciting opportunity in terms of how we broaden the brand out. But then we will work with the central team.
In a business our size you have to have central coordination. On the NFL deal, we talked with the NFL and we brought the core brands in. We had a central team working on it that fed out to the brands. We agreed that Crown, Captain and Smirnoff would be the lead brands, but we engaged across the portfolio because more brands will get involved over time. We’re doing stuff with Johnnie Walker, with Aviation gin, so it all comes together quite nicely in the end.
Jim: As a marketer that sells its products at sports events, I would like to get your perspective on where the most value lies with stadiums and arenas for Diageo. Is it branded spaces? The ability to be part of the hospitality experience for premium seat and suite holders? Exposure and activation to the general attendee?
Ed: It’s a bit of all of the above, I’d say. Having branded spaces in the right locations are great because you can reach a lot of people and create visibility for your brand, so that’s the first piece. You tend to get the same people coming in and out, but that’s repeat messaging, so that’s good. The second piece is delivering great experiences so that when people go to those bars they get one of our brands beautifully served, and making those experiences memorable so that people remember it was part of their great experience at the stadium.
And there’s a commercial element to it as well. It’s not going to transform the business, but it’s a nice commercial element for us in being there. We would obviously rather have people who are choosing to have a whiskey, vodka or spirit cocktail have the opportunity to choose our brands.