It was bound to happen at some point. Many have remarked that they couldn’t believe the two had not already crossed paths at some stage during the last decade or so. But it was inevitable that The Drum, magazine heavyweight that it is, would finally come face to face with the former heavyweight champion of the world, and the man whose image is on the packaging and promotion for one of the most successful household cooking appliances in recent history: the ‘Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine’.
To many, George Foreman is one of the greatest American fighters to have ever entered the boxing ring, even coming out of retirement to conquer the world for a second time.
Now though, he is more famous for the item he refers to simply as “The grill”.
When asked how it feels to be known primarily for a cooking appliance rather than for his fighting career (which included, arguably, one of the greatest fights against Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, of which we are exactly a week shy of the 32nd anniversary) Foreman is incredibly candid. “It’s intimidating,” he says, perhaps surprisingly.
The Drum is introduced to Mr Foreman in a small dressing room next to the sound stage at Duke Island Studios in the Park Royal area of London. He’s here to spend a day shooting scenes for the first ever commercials for the grill to be shot specifically for a UK audience.
As we enter Mr Foreman’s dressing room, he is sitting on a small, black leather sofa (it looks small, possibly because the man sitting in it is anything but) and the room is quiet. It’s startling just how quiet and thoughtful he actually is in comparison with his media image.
“It’s like having two lives,” he explains of his marketing persona. “I was the Heavyweight Champion of the World and the face of heavyweight boxing for many years. I even came back to win the title. But then, all these years later, for the last ten or 11 years, it’s been the ‘Lean, Mean, Fat Reducing, Grilling Machine’. People know me for that. Children come up to me, and that’s important, to have another generation of people that know you for something that you can do, and not for something that you used to do. It’s a privilege really, to be known as the grill man, and the face on the box.”
Perhaps modestly, Foreman denies that the success of the Grill has much to do with his own promotion of it, but admits that he has been lucky that throughout his career he has found success and the backing of popular culture. “It’s a phenomenon, it’s truly a phenomenon,” he says. “How do you find a phenomenon? You can’t shop for a phenomenon. When we did this grill, the people who marketed it with me, I told them that we were going to be successful and that we were going to sell a million grills and they said, ‘George, be careful.’ No one imagined that we were going to sell a million grills. These products have been out there selling 70 and 80 million; that’s a phenomenon.”
When asked which he has found more difficult, marketing or boxing, Foreman admits that both have their unique challenges, making it difficult to choose. “You know what, any other time in boxing it’s pretty much the same every time you get in the ring, you have to give 110% otherwise you aren’t going to be good,” he says. “When I got in the ring, I wanted to knock them down hard. And if I got in the ring with a simple opponent, I had to give the same amount of energy otherwise I couldn’t get a knockout. I had to give it my all. And with this, every time I appear, I have to give my all. And remember, this is 24-hours a day. Selling goes on. Even when you’re on an airplane, someone might wake you up for an autograph. You’ve gotta sell. You can never say ‘leave me alone.’ And when you’re walking down the street, you’ve got to be this fella, when you’re on the camera, you’ve gotta be this fella. So they’re equal and that’s saying a lot. They’re equal, and knowing how demanding boxing was, this is equal.
“People who buy the grill, and remember the George Foreman product has sold over 90 million products, people are buying you...and you’ve got to give it to them 24-hours a day. That’s more demanding because you can’t afford to be irritable, you can’t be nasty. If you do something bad in one small corner of the Earth, you can be in Timbuktu and tell the people ‘get out of here’, then that’s the end of the image of your grill.”
As part of the first UK-filmed campaign, Salton, the company that owns the Grill, has teamed up with The British Heart Foundation in a bid to promote the appliance in a time when British customers are looking for healthy alternatives in their diet.
Mary Boyle, brand manager for The George Foreman Grill, explains the purpose of the first UK campaign: “We want to educate consumers about the range of different foods that you can cook on the grill. What we found out from our research was that one in three households has a George Foreman grill, which is good penetration, but you’ve actually got the other percentage which don’t have a George Foreman grill. We understand why the 31% have actually bought into the product and it’s on the premise of the fat reducing element, but people, probably like me as a classic consumer, didn’t have a George Foreman grill and I didn’t own one because I didn’t realise the amount of foods that you can cook on it. So that’s one of the ads that we’re doing. The versatility ad; it’s all about the different foods that you can cook on it and we’re trying to appeal to the different consumers who don’t actually have a grill. We’ve got three angles: we’ve got versatility, we’ve got health, we’ve got convenience, all of which the grill does.”
Leeds-based Principles Agency won the £6million Salton (which owns the grill brand) account back in March, and this is its first work for the brand.
“Today is all about capturing George and the personality of George and then tomorrow we go into more technical detail about the grill and it’s more about the different types of food,” Helen North, account director at Principles explains.
Bernie May, managing partner of Principles, believes the British ads needed a different strategy to the US ones. “They share a lot of similarities with the American ads, but obviously they need a different approach with a British audience, as there are some things which the British don’t necessarily associate with the product,” he says. “We talked about dishwashers, as there is a lot more people who don’t have dishwashers in the UK.”
The grill has recently linked up with The British Heart Foundation to back its fundraising campaign. Ric Coggins of Tangerine PR, who has led Foreman’s whirlwind media tour, explains the link. “It basically all started when we worked with Salton last year,” Coggins says. “Foreman was over for a short time last year, when he was marketing the new grill. This year we needed something different in terms of something to work on and we started having conversations with the British Heart Foundation as we felt it needed a good, credible attachment to the marketing of the grill.”
The final word should, of course, fall to Foreman, who while on set sits quietly and takes his directions, without ever looking frustrated by how slow the shooting process can be.
Foreman is more than happy to recount a tale when asked what his strangest experience of travelling the globe had been since he began marketing the grill ten years ago. “Back in the Nineties I went to Memphis to a boxing show, maybe around 2000,” he says. “I was walking down the street, some fellas and me after dinner, and we spotted some kids in a headstart programme, maybe six or seven years old, maybe five or six. And the teacher stopped and begged me to please stop and say hello to the kids. And they gathered round me, and the teacher says to them ‘Children this is George Foreman, he was a Gold medallist, he was the Heavyweight champion of the World.’ And the kids looked at me and one said ‘That’s the cooking man!’ That blew me away. The kid said ‘That’s not true, he’s the cooking man.’ He knew me as the man who cooked on the grill.
“Children now, they stop and wave at me, in their cars, and they don’t have any idea that I was a boxer, but that moment was the strangest thing that ever happened. I had to wake up and understand that it was the grill.”