It was bound to happen at some point. Many have remarked that they couldn’t believe the two had not already crossed paths. 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 graces the packaging and promotional material 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 arguably 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 his fighting career (which included one of the greatest fights ever, against Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, of which, at time of writing, we are exactly a week shy of the 32nd anniversary) Foreman is incredibly candid. “It’s intimidating,” he says, perhaps surprisingly...
The Drum meets 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 his dressing room, Foreman 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 near silent. It’s startling just how quiet and thoughtful he is in comparison with his media image.
“It’s like having two lives,” Foreman says of his real self and 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 who know you for something you can do, and not for something you used to do. It’s a privilege really, to be known as the grill man, and to be 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 he does admit that he has been lucky to have found success and the backing of popular culture throughout his career. “These products have been out there selling 70 and 80 million,” he says. “Now that’s a phenomenon, it’s truly a phenomenon. How do you find a phenomenon? You can’t shop for a phenomenon.
“When we did this grill, I told the people who marketed it that we were going to be successful and would sell a million grills. They said, ‘George, be careful.’ No one imagined we were going to sell a million grills.”
When asked which he has found more difficult, marketing or boxing, Foreman admits that both have their unique challenges. “You know what? With 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. When I got in the ring, I wanted to knock them down hard. 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 got to sell. You can never say, ‘Leave me alone.’ 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 80 million – 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, if you’re 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 which owns the grill, has teamed up with The British Heart Foundation in a bid to promote the appliance at a time when British customers are looking for healthy alternatives in their diets.
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 you can cook on the grill. What we found from our research was that one in three households has a George Foreman grill. That is good penetration, but you’ve actually got the other percentage which don’t have a George Foreman grill.
“We understand why the 31 percent have bought into the product, and it’s on the premise of the fat-reducing element. But there will be lots of people like me – I didn’t own one because I didn’t realise the amount of foods you can cook on it. So that’s one of the ads we’re doing: the versatility ad. It’s all about the different foods 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.”
The Leeds-based Principles Agency won the £6million Salton account back in March, and this campaign is the company’s first work for the brand. “Today is all about capturing George and the personality of George,” says Helen North, account director at Principles. “And then tomorrow we’ll go into more technical detail about the grill, that will be more about the different types of food you can cook on the grill.”
Bernie May, managing partner of Principles, believes the British ads need a different strategy to the US ones. “They share a lot of similarities with the American ads,” he says. “But, obviously, they need a different approach with a British audience, as there are some things the British don’t necessarily associate with the product. We talked about dishwashers, as there are a lot more people who don’t have dishwashers in the UK.”
And unlike the US ads, the UK versions have that link 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 all started when we worked with Salton last year. 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, of course, falls to Foreman, who sits quietly on set and takes his directions without ever looking frustrated by how slow the process can be. When asked what his strangest experience of travelling the globe has been since he started marketing the grill ten years ago, he is more than happy to recount a tale which shows how his public image has changed.
“Back in the 1990s, I went to Memphis to a boxing show,” he says. “I was walking down the street, some fellas and me after dinner, and we spotted some kids, maybe six or seven years old, in a headstart programme. The teacher stopped me and begged me to say hello to the kids.
“So 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.’ The kids looked at me, and one 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, 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.”