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How Brands Can Harness The Appeal of Rising Football Stars Like Bukayo Saka

What can brands learn from collaborating with the young player and highly popular personality?

By conor nichols

Perhaps properly kick-started (pardon the pun) by Brazilian striker Pele in the 70s, who seemingly would advertise anything, footballers have been a staple of brand ambassador deals in the UK for decades now.

The likes of proven world-class players David Beckham, Neymar Jr, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been poster boys for some of the biggest brands in the world in recent times, with the Becks family still proving to be enduringly alluring for brands. If anything, Messi’s brand popularity has also increased more so towards the end of his career at Beckham’s Inter Miami, starring in ads for Lays, Pepsi and a Super Bowl spot for Michelob Ultra.

Thierry Henry and the aforementioned Beckham starred alongside Messi in PepsiCo’s sports-focused platform ‘No Lay’s, No Game’ which has a history of partnering with the most iconic and proven football ambassadors.

For Ciara Dilley, global vice president of global brands Lays and Quaker, it is very important for the brand to work with talent who not only have credibility in the space, but also have a natural connection to the brand, to consumers and with each other.

She adds: “Henry, Beckham and Messi bring so much authenticity to what they do, and we know consumers respond to them both on and off the field. The three all exude positivity, fun and joy, all things that Lay’s brand represents.”

Shifting focus slightly, women’s football has also been increasingly adopted by brands in recent years, with the Women’s Super League (WSL) skyrocketing in popularity. Viewership reached an all-time high of 120 million viewers globally in 2023 - a sizeable 40 per cent increase from the previous year. So you can be certain that brands now want a piece.

And what will bridge the chasm in revenue and salaries between the men's and women's games over the coming years will be a spike in investment in marketing around the women's game and player endorsement deals to meet the recent surge in public interest.

Last October, in an OOH and DOOH campaign created by BBH, Barclays projected icons of the women’s game - including West Ham’s Mackenzie Arnold, Manchester United’s goalkeeper Mary Earps and Chelsea’s Sam Kerr - onto its global headquarters. Sky Sports and McCann London’s 'Keep Up' campaign also hyped up the WSL, with rap artists Nadia Rose, Yungen, Stefflon Don and Bugzy Malone featuring in the video.

But it continues to be the men's game where most of the brand focus, and money, remains. Champions League winners Vinicius Junior and Jack Grealish star in a newly released global Pepsi campaign, for example. However, there is one younger up-and-coming footballer who is beginning to break the mould of the traditional football brand ambassador - Bukayo Saka.

Apart from scoring 19 goals for Arsenal this season, Saka has been as busy off the pitch as he has on it. Already this calendar year, the 22-year-old has appeared in three advertisements - and not for the sporting brands you’d expect. He fronted campaigns for Persil, Snickers and Nando’s, the latter of which saw him create his own Peri-Peri sauce. Before this busy stint, the England international also featured in campaigns for Beats by Dre, New Balance, Paypal, Adidas and more.

It’s possible Saka signals the dawn of a new footballer/brand tie-up and a shift in athlete endorsement trends. Anyone who even remotely follows football, even with Arsenal haters aside, can garner a guess as to why he has been sought after by major brand names - it's due to his apparent humble, smiley and charming character. All of these attributes extend his fan base beyond football. He not only appeals to younger generations but he is also somewhat of a nation's sweetheart type - even after the disgusting hate he received after the 2020 Euros.

In a similar vein to fellow England star Marcus Rashford in recent years, his commercial appeal is defined by more than just good looks and football skills - making him undoubtedly unique in comparison to his football brand ambassador predecessors.

No sense of inauthenticity exists in his relationships with his associated brands. The player’s recent collaboration with Nando’s is an example of this, as Saka is known to love Nando’s - he’s a black card holder - and posts about it naturally on his social media feeds. In also making his own PERi-PERi Saka sauce he is the advertisement, as opposed to merely featuring in a campaign. That collaboration goes beyond advertising to directly impact the product and restaurant service.

So, is there something to be said for collaborating with younger and up-and-coming players like Saka?

In 1984, a 21-year-old basketball player signed an unexpected and atypical deal with a sports brand no one was interested in. To date, 150 million pairs of Nike Air Jordans have been sold. While there is no real comparison in success between Michael Jordan to Bukayo Saka, (the latter winning a Premier League title would be a start), should brands be investing in young players that have the potential to reach the heights of other players that have gone before them? What can brands learn from Saka’s unique brand popularity? We ask a host of industry experts.

Joe Smith, strategy partner, AMV BBDO

As a Spurs fan, it pains me to write that Saka is a very likeable guy, who has come to represent the new generation of skilful, attacking English players that Gareth Southgate has nurtured in recent years. But he’s also popular with brands because he is a symbol of potential. Both Arsenal and England are on the cusp of success and that’s when brands are now most interested. When players are on the ascent, rather than already at the summit.

This marks a shift from 10-15 years ago, when the biggest sports brands focused all their attention on the elite athletes at the top of their sports. Nike, for example, backed Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not the most likeable humans, but three of the most dominant in their sports.

There’s now more of a desire to partner with athletes that have qualities beyond sporting prowess. Men and women who are admired for who they are and how they come across, not just what they’ve achieved. And team rivalries aren’t what they were. Many younger football fans follow individual players as much as teams, so backing an Arsenal or Tottenham player isn’t as polarising as we might think.

But the Saka example also reflects a problem for both brands and athletes. If a small number of rising stars spread their endorsements across multiple brands, they will build an association with none of them. And a short-term boost in brand awareness won’t translate to longer-term effectiveness.

The norm is of course for brands to choose partners that are clearly relevant to their products and credible for their audiences. But there can also be intrigue in the incongruous. A sports star advertising Persil is a more interesting creative brief than Saka x Adidas.

Pablo González de la Peña, executive creative director, Accenture Song

In a sterile office, a CMO flicks through some slides adorned with celebrity faces and their social media numbers (separated by platform). Amongst all of them, Saka's image stands out.

But with him it’s not just a numbers game.

Saka isn't just another athlete. He embodies an elusive charm, radiating joy, making him an unexpected yet inevitable choice for endorsements. But his appeal isn't superficial; it's meticulously curated by him, seamlessly blending with his persona while retaining his authenticity.

It’s interesting to see how the evolution of sports stars, notably footballers, have transcended them from the pitch, transforming them into cultural icons, like Marcus Rashford and Colin Kaepernick. Their influence extends far beyond sports.

Today, partnering with an athlete isn't merely about stats - it's about understanding their unique voice and impact on broader conversations. In this landscape, Saka isn't just a player; he's a cultural asset. And aligning with him means tapping into something bigger than the game itself.

Neil Clarke and Jay Phillips, creative directors, BBH London

When Paddy Power used Peter Crouch and Teddy Sheringham to promote their new Super Subs offering, the idea came first, then the choice of sporting celebs was used to complement the idea. Get two iconic super subs. Two players you’d love your bet to be carried over to. Alas, Olé was ‘busy’. 

But in true Paddy style, Teddy and Crouchy didn’t take over the whole spot. They didn’t get in the way of the idea or the brand. They added a bit of surprise and delight, with a 3-second cameo having a bitchy fight about who was the better Super sub.

Brands will continue to use sports influencers for short-lived moments of fame. But it’s a bit like sending the keeper up in the 95th minute and hoping he’ll go full Garnacho top bins.  

For proper ‘Tiki-taka’ ‘Champions League’ levels of celebrity endorsement, there needs to be an idea that works in harmony with the celeb. Where they offer more than just a famous face, gaze-cueing us towards a message or packshot. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing plenty more of Saka this summer at the Euros. Doing what he does best! 

Shane O’Sullivan, managing director, Prism Sport & Entertainment, a division of VML

Even though Saka is only 22 years old, he’s been an established Premier League and England player for several years so his age should not necessarily be confused with the maturity of his commercial presence.

He’s an attractive proposition to brands due to his personality; his England team mates, and other players, speak fondly of him in every interview where his name is mentioned and is seen as a role model for a wide range of younger audiences. The tangible element is of course his huge following and how he uses his platforms.

Historically, brands partnered with teams or rights-holders however, athlete commercial power has arguably never been stronger. In some cases, brands are specifically supporting athletes to make a stand and drive social purpose – Nike and Colin Kaepernick being one example.

When working with ambassadors, it’s important to ensure the ambassador reflects the positioning of your brand – now or where you would like it to be, not just for short term campaigns.

Audiences are now far more aware of which brand ambassadors are aligned with brands and it is not just about putting a brand and an ambassador together but how the partnership reflects their shared values.

Ambassadors generally provide greater flexibility than partnering with a company or sports team and are cheaper in most cases. However, each partnership needs to be assessed in isolation to determine whether partnering with an individual or team is most likely to achieve objectives. An evaluation and measurement framework is essential to assess success whether this is direct revenue increase via product sales, data capture via membership signs ups or brand health metrics via media activities.

Successful ambassador partnerships stand the test of time where common goals are aligned, Michael Jordan and Nike, David Beckham and Adidas, Usain Bolt and Puma to name a few.

Shashank Hariharan, senior strategist, T&Pm

Once Snickers had identified football as the strategic focus for the source of growth amongst a younger audience, we wanted someone popular with fans across Europe who could also fit right in with Snickers’ legacy of famous brand ambassadors. Bukayo Saka is England’s own wonderkid who’s turned into the nation’s sweetheart.

There was enough evidence on our celebrity popularity tracking tools that showed how influential he is amongst younger audiences. It’s his friendly, always smiling, and down to earth personality off the pitch; combined with his magical footballing abilities that make him an endearing personality amongst hardcore and casual football fans alike.

There are three key things to keep in mind when selecting brand ambassador:

  • Do they meet your business objective? Snickers wanted to drive relevance amongst a Gen Z audience (who love Saka)

  • Do they fit with the brand? Snickers is known for its straight-talking humour and a public sentiment analysis of Saka’s image assured us that he was the right fit to the brand.

  • Do they have a robust online presence? Our audience heavily over indexes on online content consumption. Saka not just has a huge following online, but is also very active on social media.

With what looks like a great PR team and crew alongside Saka, he’s definitely not shy of marketing opportunities.


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