This plant can churn out five million cans a week,’ shouts Gareth Roberts. Below the gantry, tins of Carlsberg hurtle noisily along conveyor belts as vast machines herd them into formation.
Short and athletic, and with a healthy tan, Roberts makes himself heard above the dull thudding. ‘How many we shift depends on the progress of England in the World Cup. If we make it to the final it’s going to be a busy few weeks.’ Carlsberg is, of course, the official beer of the England team.
Roberts’ accent carries traces of Chelmsford, the Essex town where he spent his formative years. And after 17 years at Carlsberg, last week he became its top PRO, following Donna Creswell’s exit (PRWeek, 2 June).
But how did Carlsberg UK’s sponsorship controller, someone who has never held a ‘traditional PR’ position, assume control of comms at one of the biggest beer brands?
‘When Donna left, the board sounded me out about taking on the role,’ Roberts explains, back in his office. ‘I deal with consumer media all the time, and building corporate relationships is a big part of my sponsorship role.’
An agreement was reached to split Creswell’s old director of comms responsibility between external and internal comms, with Roberts taking on the former, and the latter being shifted to HR director David Frost.
But, surely, being in control of Carlsberg UK’s sponsorship – a portfolio that includes the FA Cup, Wembley Stadium and Rugby Football Union – cannot leave much time for external comms as well?
‘We’ve already signed the Wembley and Euro 2008 deals; we’re in the process of re-signing a four-year deal with the FA; and the World Cup will be over in four weeks,’ Roberts says. ‘That gives me and my team breathing space to work out what needs to be done and how we’re going to do it.’
Part of Carlsberg’s strategy is to develop speciality beers. It has partnerships with brewers across the world, and is keen to launch new brands in the UK along the lines of the recently revamped Birra Poretti. ‘Our research suggests there are beer-drinking occasions we can get into,’ explains Roberts.
‘People want something slightly different, depending on venue and occasion, and we need to fulfil those needs,’ he adds.
The 43-year-old worked in the beer company’s sales arm until 1997, when he was offered a place on a marketing and retail management postgraduate course. A keen sportsman (he played for the Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient youth teams, as well as rugby club Chelmsford Colts), Roberts was asked to handle Carlsberg’s then nascent sponsorship of the RFU in the same year.
‘I did my dissertation on sponsorship, so they effectively said: “There’s no actual role as such, but do you want a job that revolves around sport and develops your career?” It was a pretty easy decision,’ he laughs.
Since then, Roberts has been to European finals, become friends with Rugby World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson, and sat in the dressing room with the England rugby team at the filming of Carlsberg’s World Cup ad. But he has been busy in the office, too. The firm has built up a sponsorship portfolio that covers some of the ‘biggest properties’ in English sport.
These associations, he explains, give Carlsberg a ‘massive advantage’ in the market. ‘Carlsberg is the only beer that can deliver England-led promotions,’ he says, proudly referring to the football link-up. ‘England fans follow the team, not the World Cup tournament, so associating the team with our brand gives people a chance to be part of that passion during the tournament. The message is: “If you’re watching England, drinking anything other than Carlsberg is not right.”’
The next month will be about crossing fingers. If England keep winning, and the punters keep clamouring for their ‘official World Cup beer’, settling into his new role is going to be a whole lot easier for Roberts.