Are zero-alcohol sponsorships in sport without risk?

Alcohol and sport sponsorship has a long-standing relationship. For decades, alcohol brands have been a common sight as partners with various sporting events, teams and grounds.

Today partnerships are not as common as they once were; the detrimental effects of alcohol on both athletes’ performance and public health have become more widely known and seen as an incongruous ‘fit’ with sport’s ethos. And as sport is so popular with families, many see it as inappropriate for alcohol brands to be promoting themselves in the presence of those who are under the legal drinking age.

In recent years, especially since Covid, there has been a big shift in people’s drinking habits. In European countries including the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the Nordics, Millennials and Gen Z (those born between 1981-1996 and 1997-2012, respectively) are consuming far less and becoming increasingly sober curious.

This month, dubbed Sober October, we review the growing market of zero-alcohol drinks and their partnerships in the world of sport.

The emergence of zero alcohol ‘booze’

According to a 2018 Berenberg Research report, Gen Z are drinking 20% less alcohol per individual than Millennials, who are drinking less than Gen X and Boomers did at their age[source]. And it doesn’t seem to be to do with any governmental influence or campaigning – reasons cited for reducing or completely removing alcohol from these generations’ lifestyles include uncertainty and worry about the future, concern about health, changes to technology and leisure, and shifting relationships with parents[source].

With the prospect of declining sales, the beverage industry has sought to redress its market share – enter zero or low-alcohol beers, wines, and even ‘spirits’.

Are alcohol sponsorships harmful?

Alcohol advertising has been linked to young people starting to drink at earlier ages and to binge drinking [source] [source]. Some studies have suggested that adverts may trigger a desire to drink in those recovering from alcohol use disorder[source].

Among the general population however, through alcohol advertising ABV products are pushed into all aspects of life, perpetuating the norm that regular drinking is without harm. Although what might seem contrary to a lot of legislation all around the world, the Global Commission on Drug Policy considers alcohol to be the most dangerous drug[source].

Zero alcohol sponsorships in sport

In 2019 Seedlip, a company which distills non-alcoholic spirits, announced a new global partnership with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport working alongside them at all Formula One Grands Prix. More recently Seedlip partnered with Formula E’s Mercedes-EQ. Seedlip differs from other beverage brands in that its primary product is alcohol free unlike that of Heineken or Guinness.

credit: Flickr


Since 2016 Heineken has been a prominent sponsor of Formula One but in May this year when the partnership renewed, the Dutch brewery confirmed it would continue to use “F1’s global platform to provide messaging around responsible consumption and promote Heineken 0.0 …as part of their responsible drinking programme”.

Although Heineken has been a prolific partner of UEFA, since 2020 it has actively sought to promote its non-alcoholic alternative through the partnership.

In 2018, Guinness signed a six-year deal with the Six Nations but as well as it being Official Title Sponsor it is also the rugby tournament’s Official Responsible Drinking Partner – duly promoting the Guinness 0.0 product on different areas of the pitch.

So what are the problems with zero-alcohol brand sponsorship?

Beverage brands frequently design the packaging and imagery of the zero alcohol alternative to mimic the alcoholic version of the drink. They do this so that non-drinkers feel included and not alienated. However, effectively the non-alcoholic version still has the same brand identity; the strapline, font, and is completely recognisable as the alcoholic drink save for a couple of zeros at the end – Guinness 0.0 and Heineken 0.0 being the case in point.

Effectively the brand is still getting exposure and a lot of eyeballs, including from those who are under age.

In some countries where there are strict rules governing alcohol advertising, such as France, even zero alcohol products cannot be represented.

One study suggested that there is an “increased intention and odds of purchasing and consuming alcohol drinks when people are exposed to marketing and advertising of zero-alcohol products[source]”, although more research into the effects of zero-alcohol advertising needs to be done.

Do zero alcohol sponsorships pose a reputational risk?

On the face of it, it would seem that a zero-alcohol alternative sponsorship is a good thing; offering choice, attracting a new audience of non-drinkers or encouraging people to reduce their alcohol intake.

But as due diligence providers we know the reality is a lot more complex. It depends on the type of rights holder, who the brand is and how the product is represented. Crucially who might see the ads, other than the target audience?

What is the jurisdiction of the activation – will it crossover into countries where alcohol sponsorship is banned or in countries where alcohol is illegal (e.g. Saudi Arabia)?

Would the sponsorship pose issues to individuals such as under-age athletes? At the 2017 US Grand Prix, Williams driver Lance Stroll was forced to wear different overalls to his teammate as he was under the legal drinking age of 21 – Williams’ title sponsor was Martini. This partnership would have caused serious headaches had his teammate Felipe Massa also been under age.

Conducting a sentiment analysis will also give brands and rights holders an indication of public perception of any potential partnership.

If you’re looking to make informed choices about zero-alcohol partnerships, InsightX can provide the guidance to help mitigate risks or reputational damage. To find out more about how we can help you do this and much more, please contact

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