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Can CONTAINS or BEGINS be used with a lookup field

Can CONTAINS or BEGINS used to reference a lookup field, or does it have to be text?  The following formula for a lead assignment rule is not working. I figured it most be how I'm using CONTAINS and/or BEGINS. 


ISPICKVAL(Geography__c, "EMEA") && CONTAINS (Product_Interest__c, "Alliance") &&

BEGINS (Product_Interest__c, "GA")
If I can't use functions CONTAINS or BEGINS, what would I use to make sure a person was assigned a lead when the Geography is EMA, Product Interest begins with "GA" and Product Interest contains "Alliances".  I have to go with creating this rule in a formula because I can't reference the Product Interest field in the via the standard lead assignment UI because the Product Interest field is a lookup field.
thanks in advance for your help.

If it's a lookup, you should be able to switch the Product_Interest__c (record id) to Product_Interest__r.Name.

Or whatever field contains the string you want.  Use the "Insert Field" to help with that.