Whisky and rugby are not the most natural of bedfellows, you might think. But you would be wrong. Or at least, if you were right, Highland Distillers has been wasting a vast amount of the marketing budget for The Famous Grouse for many years now. As well as sponsoring London Scottish and the Scotland rugby team for much of the Nineties, Grouse has just spent a reported £1.2m to become one of the elite sponsors of the next Rugby World Cup – ‘official supplier’ is the technical term – to be held in Europe this autumn. That brings estimated spending on rugby since 1990 to getting on for £10m. For Grouse, its sponsorship of rugby’s premier event is useful to reinforce its core sponsorship of Scotland, whose Five Nations-winning performance this year confirmed its place as one of the few Scottish sporting successes. Not only does Grouse get to be associated with Scotland, but the success factor is very important. And so is the rugby constituency. For although the game may not be strictly socially homogeneous, whether you are in Melrose, Cardiff, Christchurch or Cape Town, the half-time nip from a hip flask is de rigeur. Inside and out with the game, the casual association of rugby and drink – beer for the boys and whisky for the older rugger buggers in blazers – is a well- established one. As well as the fit of the sponsorship and the chance to piggyback on the back of Scottish success, the World Cup is also a formidable brand-building vehicle in its own right. The third-biggest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and football World Cup, the month-long event held in Britain, Ireland and France in October will be seen by three billion people worldwide. Yet there are also three other key factors which influenced Grouse’s decision to plunge in. The first is France, where the ‘Loi Evin’ specifically forbids any drinks sponsorship of sport in any way. While that makes it difficult for Grouse when four World Cup matches are played across the Channel, it means that when the French public tunes into matches played in Britain and Ireland, Grouse has a unique opportunity. That fact assumes added importance when you consider that France now consumes more whisky than pastis. In fact, after Spain and the UK, the French are the third biggest consumers of whisky in the world. They are also Grouse’s second largest export customer. Another key influence in Grouse’s decision would almost certainly have been the Asian market. Although they produce their own whisky and their economy has been stagnant since the crash, the Japanese are still formidable consumers of premium whiskies. And in Japan – as, to a lesser extent, in Korea and Sri Lanka – rugby has kudos roughly on a par with polo in Britain. The wider Asian picture is also very important. International Rugby Board chairman, Welshman Vernon Pugh QC, has been assiduous in his courting of China in recent years, and it is an initiative which has paid off handsomely. Rugby has now achieved the enviable status of an officially-endorsed sport in China and, more specifically, the 20m-strong People’s Liberation Army. By communications manager Peter McMullan’s reckoning, by the end of next year there will be 2m Chinese playing rugby regularly. Given the size of the Northern Chinese (bigger than you’d expect) and the fact that the Chinese are not renowned for taking tentative steps into sporting arenas, China’s emergence as a major player in world rugby cannot be light years away. That probably explains why Grouse has sponsored
the rugby development programme being undertaken in China, as it has in India, another nation targeted by the International Rugby Board as ripe for development. Grouse’s strategy of simultaneously spending sponsorship bucks at the high-profile peak of the game and at its grassroots, is a shrewd one. The final key market which Grouse’s sponsorship is designed to target is the southern hemisphere rugby heartland of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Whisky is not hugely popular here, but rugby and Scottish culture are. By tying the two together, Grouse is hoping that it can push sales up in three English-speaking nations which should be natural whisky-consumers. With limited budgets and a whole world to market to, the amazing thing is that Highland Distillers is the only company which has cottoned on to what good value rugby, and the Rugby World Cup, represents. That, though, is the way Grouse would like it to stay.