The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Hellmann's Sports & Fitness Marketing

After high-profile snafus, do brands need to rethink relationships with athletes?

By Jack Ward, Creative Strategy Director

Ear to the Ground


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

Find out more

July 10, 2024 | 6 min read

With increased demands from fans and athletes becoming more aware of their influence, Ear to the Ground’s Jack Ward argues that a new way of working with talent is required.

A bottle of Hellmann's mayonnaise

Athlete-brand partnerships aren't always easy - but they're worth sticking with, says Jack Ward / Kelsey Todd via Unsplash

If you’ve been bored on LinkedIn in the last few weeks, you may have noticed some discussion on the latest partnership between Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Jack Grealish of Premier League-winning football club Man City.

It’s one of a raft of athlete partnerships on show during the Uefa Euro championships, but this one is attracting more heat from the marketing community after Grealish’s omission from the England squad.

Many in the marketing industry have taken issue with the campaign and its creators given its launch coincided with England’s squad announcement, cackling with self-satisfaction at the brand and athlete’s misfortune. But is this reaction fair? Or is it symptomatic of the industry’s broken relationship with athletes?

What does true brand partnership look like?

Full disclosure, my agency, Ear to the Ground, has worked with both Grealish and Hellmann’s parent company Unilever in the last 12 months. Regardless, my opinion on this would remain the same: brands need to back their athlete at all costs, or risk irrelevance among sports fans.

We’ve recently published a report in collaboration with both fans and elite athletes on what brands can do to adjust to the new realities of athlete partnerships. The fans that we spoke to were unanimous in their view that brands need to go much further in supporting athletes beyond the limits of an ad shoot.

Fans notice when athletes aren’t bought into true partnership with brands. They hate it when they see their idols paraded before them, staring vacantly from a billboard, forced into the campaign by their clubs or agents. When talent feel like they’re being used only to drive a few more views in the short term, no one really wins.

The elite athletes we spoke to told us how demoralizing it is when a campaign feels like a cheap one-off, or doesn’t chime with their values. And guess what? They tell other athletes when their interactions with brands haven’t been positive. Word travels fast in the elite athlete community, so brands need to watch their step.

It takes guts, but real impact comes from cultivating long-term relationships and deep collaboration with athlete talent. Just look at Lucozade and Anthony Joshua. When AJ’s boxing career looked like it was over, Lucozade was the one brand to stand resolutely behind him. Two years later, he’s on the cusp of reclaiming his crown, with the brand a very visible feature of his comeback.

Athletes are also aware of their increased power and influence, not just in sport but in wider culture. With huge audiences on social media, they can exercise that power with greater independence and authority than ever before. Athletes don’t need the reach and clout of global brands as much as previous generations did. Some athletes are so fed up with the merry-go-round of marketing bullshit they endure daily that many have created their own brands.

Is Hellmann’s x Grealish really an own goal?

Marketers need to be much more collaborative or risk alienating this new generation of athletes and their influential fans (and athletes and their teams also need to pull their weight).

Sometimes the value given by athletes doesn’t justify the enormous budgets and faith that organizations place with them. But, from my experience, athletes and their teams are far more sophisticated, creative, and collaborative than they were even a decade ago.

Which brings us back to Jack Grealish and his mayonnaise. No one, not Jack and his team nor Unilever, is suggesting that what’s happened over the last few weeks has been ideal.

For those suggesting a tongue-in-cheek series of ads where Jack makes light of his predicament, bear in mind we’re talking about a 28-year-old who has missed out on one of the defining moments of his career. He will be back, but the hurt will be real and raw in the short-term, so let’s can the TikToks for a moment yeah?

The best route for the brand? Unilever should double down on the relationship, find new ways to bring Grealish into their creative process, and back him at a time when it matters most. It’ll reap the rewards when he’s packing his jar of Hellmann’s for his flight to World Cup 2026.

For more play-by-play on sports marketing in 2024, check out our focus week hub.

Hellmann's Sports & Fitness Marketing

Content by The Drum Network member:

Ear to the Ground

Ear to the Ground is an award-winning strategic creative agency that specialises in sports, esports and gaming. We create highly impactful and effective campaigns...

Find out more

More from Hellmann's

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +