Irene Gowing on growing brand awareness: “Sponsorship is a long-term play”

Irene Gowing on growing brand awareness: “Sponsorship is a long-term play”

Bord Gáis Energy has been proudly serving customers in Ireland since 1976. With a current base of over 460,000 unique customers, the company’s standing is significant. The sport of hurling is likewise important to the island. To help raise brand awareness in rural areas and support a sport with extensive history and traditions, Bord Gáis Energy partnered with GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) in 2009. In this interview, we spoke with Head of Brand, Sponsorship and Consumer PR, at Bord Gáis Energy, Irene Gowing.

You entered a partnership with the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) - when did that come about and what does it entail?

We’ve been a partner of the GAA since 2009. We first entered a partnership with them as the title sponsor of the under 21 Hurling Championship. It was a fantastic competition, and we really got a lot of value out of that. We're also the sponsor of the Bord Gáis Energy Legends tours of Croke Park Stadium, which take place every year and we bring customers on that. More recently in 2017, we started the sponsorship of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship and we're one of three partners in that mix. We have a long-standing relationship with the GAA, and it's served us well.

What do you see as the intended goals of the partnership?

If you look at the goals of any and every sponsorship, it’s grounded in what the business ambition is. We have commercial goals that align to the growth of our business and growing our relationship with our customer base. When we started working with the GAA, we had very little rural brand awareness; as a gas company, our traditional customer base is around urban areas. We needed to raise awareness in rural Ireland and offer electricity to those customers. There were certain pockets that we needed to delve into a little bit more and they were often strongholds for hurling: Cork, Munster, Limerick. At this stage, we have a very strong brand awareness on a nationwide level and our partnership with GAA was the starting point.

We’re now on a journey towards reaching net zero by 2045 and helping our customers with that transition too. To do that, we need customers to start to bring in more sustainable energy solutions, including deep retrofitting their homes. While they're aware of Bord Gáis Energy as an energy supplier, they may not be aware of the suite of services that we supply. That’s the commercial reasoning behind this partnership. It's very important to us that nobody is left behind. We call that the just transition, which aligns with the government sustainability strategy.

How do you think Bord Gáis Energy has leveraged the sponsorship to mutual benefit?

We have over 460,000 unique customers and there are 2,200 hurling clubs in Ireland. A lot of our customer base are deeply steeped in those clubs so we're able to talk to them all the time.

A core pillar of our brand promise is the commitment to nurturing and developing an inclusive culture of equal opportunities and creating a culture where difference is valued, and all can thrive. We're promoting the game as a platform for everybody and anybody to get involved. We’re proud that we have been able to use our sponsorship property to start a conversation about team inclusivity and allyship. Last year, we created a campaign ‘State of Play’, that spotlighted diversity and inclusion ahead of the National Pride Festival and was an important step change for how we show up as a brand and use our sponsorship to champion a societal issue.

Our new campaign this year is called It’s Anybody's Game, and we truly believe in speaking to everyone from the hardcore hurling fan right through to the fair-weather fan and everyone in between. The sport is a great leveller. It's the type of sport where you can pick up a hurl and learn it. It doesn't matter where you're from. It doesn't matter what the colour of your skin is or what your sexual orientation is. Through a media partnership with Newstalk’s Off the Ball,, we are hearing people's stories every week about how hurling has become a doorway into their local community. We're very much about attaching our activation to what our customers want to see.

Have you been able to measure any response to the partnership?

When you're writing a business case around buying sponsorship rights, you want to have your homework done on what you can contribute to the commercial plan and what you can contribute to the brand metrics. As we are modernising our image, we’re reflecting a more modern Ireland. Sponsorship has a huge role to play.

Beyond growing that rural brand awareness, the next commercial problem was customer retention and customer loyalty. We have tickets to games that nobody else has and customers of ours can buy tickets to games that are sold out. That is a reason to stay with Bord Gáis Energy and one reason why our retention scores are strong.

Sponsorship is a long-term play. If you're looking for sponsorship to deliver a direct response in the same way as a radio or TV campaign, you're not going to get it. That's not going to give your brand long-term success. But if you're looking to build long-term reputation and long-term growth by investing in the future, then a good sponsorship and a considered activation plan is going to deliver that for your brand. My job is to start building and developing our brand for the future.

That leads on to my final question: do you have any advice for marketing teams that are looking at similar sponsorships?

You need to treat sponsorship as a significant business investment. Consider any sponsorship asset that you're about to obtain as a long-term purchase. Organise your business case in a way that can demonstrate how it will deliver strong commercial value in line with the organisation’s goals and objectives. Be able to demonstrate how it can deliver strong brand value because your brand needs to be set up to deliver on commercial promises.

For example, our brand needed to be much more modern facing to have an authoritative voice in moving our customers towards net zero. That's the role this sponsorship has for us. My advice would be that you need to be able to demonstrate brand growth through your sponsorship platform and or demonstrate strong commercial growth. Track your brand health and where you currently are, because if you can't track return on investment, then you're not going to be able to stand up when there's budget challenges and strategy challenges going forward.

To learn more about how sponsorship can support your brand's sustainability efforts, click here.