CEO of Shepherd Neame, Jonathan Neame, on what cricket, Kent, and community mean to their sponsorship

CEO of Shepherd Neame, Jonathan Neame, on what cricket, Kent, and community mean to their sponsorship

Shepherd Neame is Britain's oldest brewer. Since 1573, they’ve been on the same site, brewing using the same source of water from their own artesian well. For over twenty years, the company serving the south-east has sponsored Kent County Cricket Club, supporting the cornerstone of Kentish sport through two decades of change in the sport itself. In this interview, we spoke with CEO of Shepherd Neame since 2003, Jonathan Neame, about the driving forces behind this long-standing partnership. 

How did your partnership with Kent County Cricket Club come about and how has it progressed over time?

Firstly, we feel it is important to undertake sponsorships when you are a business of our type as our pubs are at the heart of our communities, so it's essential that you put something back, that you invest in that community. We also want to attract new customers who don't necessarily know our beer or are new to the area, so in that respect, supplying local high profile sports teams is an attractive thing to do. Kent is a cricket-mad county, we only have one single dominant football team, which is quite unusual in England, and therefore Kent County Cricket Club (KCCC) is the biggest sporting venture. We do sponsor many other clubs at a slightly lower level including the Kent Cricket League, Surrey Cricket League, Canterbury Rugby Club, Bromley Football Club and Maidstone Football Club. But of all of those, the most supported would be Kent County Cricket Club. I think that beer and cricket are closely associated in a very appealing way as a player or a watcher. So that's how it came about.

 In terms of how it’s evolved, the game of cricket has changed enormously in the past twenty years and we’ve had to find ways of supporting and keeping up with those changes. The T20 format has grown and grown, so now, we sponsor the T20 team and we're also the beer sponsor at the ground and all its venues. In addition to that, the ground itself used to be called St Lawrence Ground. It's now called the Spitfire Ground in St. Lawrence, so we use our brand Spitfire on both the shirts, the Kent Spitfires, and on the ground itself.

On the other side, why does this sponsorship make sense for KCCC?

Historically, the sponsorship at KCCC was taken on by national brewers. Prior to us, it was a national brewer which no longer exists, but they were the dominant brewer in the South East of England and they used it to raise the profile for their brands. So the opportunity for a local brewer to step in was very appealing. I think it's probably true now, but it wasn't then, that clubs would prefer to be associated with local businesses. And so they want the provenance, they want the authenticity, they want local sourcing, they have their own commitment to align with a local economy.

 How have you seen your proximity to the club benefit the community as a whole?

We’ve tried a variety of initiatives over the years: that's a constant discussion. We use our pubs as a way of promoting the club, of promoting events at the ground, etc. We provide ticket incentives and hospitality event incentives through our customer networks. We support a lot of their online activity and they likewise support our online activity. If they're having events at the club, we often step in and sponsor, whether it's the awards events related to cricket or other events. At the ground, they have a number of music concerts at the end of the season or mid-season. So again, we step in and try and support non-cricket activities as well, for mutual promotional benefits.

 There’s constant communication between ourselves and the club about what their programme is for the year, how we can align our programme for our brands around it. Specifically, as I said, the ground is called the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence, and the Spitfire, one of our beers, is on the shirt. We also like to use our partnership to work with customers at the ground on taste and trial for some of our emerging products.

What do you think are the brand attributes that Shepherd Neame shares with KCCC?

 If you do research into what people associate most with Kent, I think most surveys would come up with Kent Cricket, Shepherd Neame, Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, Canterbury Cathedral. We want to be inextricably linked with what Kent's famous for and vice versa. So it seems an ideal partnership in that respect. We share a standing in the county.

And how do you think this sponsorship over such a long period has benefited the company internally?

We try to involve as many of our people, not just the sales or the marketing team members, in the activity of the club, including offering free tickets. I think that's important. Over the years, the centre of gravity has slightly evolved. Kent now have more games in Beckenham and that's a development area for us. We've got a number of pubs around Bromley where there's a very dense population. So in these areas, there's an audience of people that would be less familiar with our beers. And so that's quite important for both. I think whenever there's success on the field, and indeed, Kent has had two very good years in the last two years, we take a busload of team members up to watch the game and that's a great day out of rewarding our teams internally. 

In that respect, it feels like a natural partnership. It's a partnership like anything. It's long term. You need to keep working at. You need to keep evolving and making sure that the messaging and collaboration is fresh.

 Do you have any advice for marketing teams that are looking at similar sponsorships?

 You certainly need to make sure your values are aligned, but if I had one frustration, unrelated to KCCC, it's to do with the way cricket is managed with its chopping and changing format and fixture list. The key attraction for us is involving the wider Shepherd Neame network in that partnership. I personally would just hope that we could get to a much more stable fixture list. The reason for that is that you can then invite one group of people on the May bank holiday and the same group of people next year on the same day, etc. and that's where you build much longer term relationships. People like going back year after year and with an unstable schedule, as cricket tends to have, you need to be flexible and plan quickly each year.If you take Wimbledon, for example, it has never moved its date - it owns that date in the calendar. The FA Cup final is on more or less the same day. Cricket needs to do the same.

A key objective for these sponsorships should be recruiting new customers and so being mindful of newer, growing communities is crucial. There's a lot of population growth down here especially and a lot of new house building, etc. so one should never take one's audience for granted. Otherwise, the audience just gets older and older. If, for example, we focus on the question of ‘how do we grow the audience?’ then that's the heart of a regular dialogue between us and KCCC. Communication really is key. It needs to be a partnership.