The Top Gear of beer? Carling's brand director on saving pubs and gatecrashing Euro 2016

When Carling signed back on as a sponsor of the Premier League, it might have seemed like a return to the lager's natural environment. But it's a brand that wants to be more than just football crazy, says brand director Jim Shearer.

Carling signed a three-year deal to become the Premier League's official beer (Picture: Jim Dowling/Flickr)
Carling signed a three-year deal to become the Premier League's official beer (Picture: Jim Dowling/Flickr)

The battle to be the "beer of football" is as ferocious as ever. Carlsberg is making the most of its Euro 2016 sponsorship with a series of nationalistically-tinged ads and stunts like a disguised Chris Kamara handing out tournament tickets on the London Underground. Heineken and Budweiser want in on the action just as badly.

But it’s Carling that made headlines recently when it revealed a partnership with the Premier League – the competition it was the name sponsor of for eight years until being supplanted by Barclaycard in 2001. Carling went on to sponsor the League Cup, a deal that ended four years ago.

We’re a sociable brand that’s about broad friendship groups. The kind of attitude that we want to adopt is one of entertainment rather than pure football content.

So why is it back with the Prem? According to brand director Jim Shearer, the reasons are more nuanced than simply seeking a blunt association with the beautiful game.

"In a way we’ve never been away from football," says brand director Jim Shearer. "Football and beer are absolutely a common language – Carling has a desire to be part of that and the stories that flow from it."

But despite this, he says the Premier League deal is "a means to an end".

"The main thing for us is that we can use that association to create a conversation," he explains. "It’s about the chance to be a part of the most prevalent conversation in this country." Research in 2015 by Populus found that 44% of UK adults were interested in football, while 35% actively followed the Premier League.

"We’re a sociable brand that’s about broad friendship groups - it’s not necessarily about going to watch the game itself," Shearer adds. "The kind of attitude that we want to adopt is one of entertainment rather than pure football content."

As a comparison, he mentions the tone and style of Top Gear – which is nominally about cars, but uses them as a pretext for a diverse array of banter.

Turning around the fortunes of the Great British Pub

With Carling’s business split between pubs and the home, Shearer hopes to use the sponsorship to bolster social occasions in both contexts. In the on trade, that means talking up Carling’s support for community pubs, many of which are facing an existential crisis: an average of 27 across the country closed each week in 2015.

Shearer believes live sport is essential in fighting this trend. "Given the complicity between Carling’s success and pubs over the last three decades – we want to get people back to the pub," he says. "To the consumer that message isn’t explicit. We would like to make that more so.

"When you dig under the skin of the levers a publican can pull – you start to realise just how important providing a great sport watching experience is. In fact, it’s the one thing community pubs can do to change their fortunes."

For supermarkets, Shearer says that Carling is now able to offer something unique. Because of the Premier League’s slate of official partners (including the outgoing name sponsor Barclays), Carling is the only FMCG brand.

"We’re the only brand that can bring that community message into stores," he says. "If the challenge for the on trade is to get people off their sofas, the challenge for the off trade is: how do you maximise the single biggest value occasion for their outlets: sport watching?"

Carling has a number of sponsorship activations planned for both channels, about which Shearer is keeping tight lipped until the start of the season in August – although they will involve Sky, which it also has a commercial relationship with.

How to go to the Euros when you haven’t qualified

In the meantime, the brand will run something of a guerilla campaign around Euro 2016, to which it has no official connection.

"What we learnt from the World Cup in 2014 was that despite not being an official sponsor, we were the brand most associated with the tournament," claims Shearer, although it is not one of the ten brands most associated with the Euros in a recent study.

Carling will bring back its 2014 "Office escape" ad, created by Creature, which plays with the competing demands of staying in the office and getting out in time to watch the footy – a phenomenon that is likely to cause a national epidemic of absenteeism when England play Wales at 2pm on Thursday 16 June.

This time, however, the ad is getting a new ending, in which the protagonist dashes home to watch the game on his new TV. The reworked ad will flag up Carling’s online giveaway game, Pay Per Inch, which is offering consumers the chance to win a Samsung TV for the number of pounds the screen has inches.

At a designated time the day before each home nations match, successful online participants will first be offered a smallish TV – before having the chance to gamble for the possibility of bigger sets up to 60 inches.

Shearer says Carling has tried to "adopt a really intelligent and insightful role in terms of that time of year," by recognising behaviours that arise around the tournament and aiming to smooth people’s experiences.

"The insight is that the Euros, whether you're a football fan or not, is a great excuse to get together with your friends, whether at the pub or at home."