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Unilever is turning fans’ passion into brand engagement with value-adding partnerships

COBHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Chelsea Sure Pressure Series at Chelsea FC Training Ground on September 17, 2018 in Cobham, England. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Sure) *** Local Caption *** Pedro

  • Unilever using “passion partnerships” to engage consumers where their passions are, working closely with rights-holders to add value to sponsorships
  • Defining brand purposes allows Unilever to target different demographics without cannibalising its own product lines
  • Nimble activation strategy helps brands remain “relevant and authentic” to consumers

“Passion” is a key word at Unilever, the British-Dutch FMCG conglomerate that owns over 400 of the world’s biggest food, beverage and personal care brands.

Long one of the world’s biggest spenders when it comes to marketing and advertising –  according to Business Insider, only the $10bn outlay of American rival Procter & Gamble exceeded Unilever’s global marketing spend of over $9bn in 2017 – Unilever has begun to shift the way it looks at sport sponsorship as it attempts to engage consumers through their passions, and use partnerships to create and reinforce distinct brand identities for each of its product lines.

Willem Dinger, Unilever’s global sponsorship director, says all the company’s partnerships and campaigns begin with an assessment of an individual brand’s “purpose” – encompassing its market placement, target demographic, and a multitude of other factors – to decide what sponsorship strategy is right.

“I think the most important thing is that every Unilever brand has its own distinct and unique sponsorship vision and passion territory that they occupy,” he says.

With brands such as Axe, Rexona and Dove all supplying products in the personal care space, sponsorship offers a perfect environment in which to differentiate their brand identities. Once each brand’s purpose is defined, Unilever then looks for the “passion territory” in which it will attempt to engage consumers.

Chelsea’s Pedro in Sure/Rexona’s Make Your Move series

“The role each brand plays within each sponsorship and the way that we communicate with our consumers is very much driven and directed by the individual brand purpose, because the purpose really allows us to craft the authentic role and build that creative ownership within each of the platforms,” says Dinger.

“If we’re talking about Rexona, it’s very much football. If it’s Axe, we’re focusing very much on music and gaming. With Dove, we’re very much focusing on rugby in terms of what the UK and the Australia scenes are doing. We’re very careful to ensure that we’re avoiding any cannibalisation, and we’re making sure that each brand occupies its own unique territory.”

Under pressure

The shift in Unilever’s sponsorship strategy over recent years has been a case study in the direction of travel inside the industry. While branding opportunities and visible assets like LED hoarding and logo placements continue to play a vital role in any partnership, Unilever has taken a more proactive approach to ensuring that its partnerships “drive mutual beneficial value to our target consumer” rather than just present it with a showcase for its brand.

With a global roster of partners that includes LaLiga, Cristiano Ronaldo, the All Blacks and the Williams Formula One team, Unilever has access to a huge audience of passionately engaged fans from across multiple demographics worldwide. Its partnerships are still chosen “to build those deeper and more meaningful connections with audiences” but, Dinger says, the current strategy reflects a desire “to change our advertising model from interruption and display to high quality and authentic engagement through passion partnerships and passion content”.

“It’s about changing our advertising model from interruption and display to high quality and authentic engagement through passion partnerships.” Willem Dinger, global sponsorship director, Unilever

The Pressure Series, launched by Rexona [known as Sure in the UK and Ireland] in 2016, exemplifies the “passion content” concept. Using data from Perform Group-owned statistics provider Opta, the Pressure Series measured how footballers performed in high-pressure situations, with Rexona creating content featuring players from its partner Premier League football clubs such as Everton and Chelsea. By integrating real-game statistics into the campaign, Unilever was able to tap directly into fans’ passion for football while tying the activation back to Rexona’s core use as an anti-perspirant.

“It came from us looking at football and thinking, ‘where is the white space where we’re not operating?’,” Dinger explains. “And then understanding how we could work in that space but still make sure the campaign has relevance to the brand.”

The campaign, Dinger says, is a great example of what Unilever wishes to achieve across all of its brand activations because it “drove value in offering added experience to football fans around the world”.

“I think from a concept perspective, it was very important for us to bring a fresh lens or new level of conversation into the football community and I think that partnership with Opta allowed us to have that.”

Nimble and flexible

The Pressure Series ran for two years and was replaced in 2018 by Rexona’s latest campaign, the Movement Series. The change was down to the fact that Unilever sponsorships now need to be “more nimble, more flexible” to maintain the attention of consumers in a rapidly-evolving media landscape.

“We changed our communication proposition from being around pressure to movement, and we slightly tweaked the brand purpose,” Dinger explains. Rexona’s brand proposition was moved from being around helping people cope under pressure to getting more people moving and involved in sport, and the way Unilever activated its football partnerships was modified to reflect that evolution.

Dinger notes that brands are now working harder than ever with partners “to see how we can evolve or fine-tune that relationship for the benefit of everyone”. As he puts it: “If we win, then the partner wins, and the consumer wins too.”

The fragmentation of the media marketplace “in terms of how fans are consuming media and consuming sports” has led to challenges but also opportunities. The Pressure Series’ success was made possible by football fans consuming media in new ways, and showing a willingness to engage with content that came from a brand rather than a broadcaster or a rights-holder, especially where clubs are able to make players available for use in activations.

The three videos in the ‘Make Your Move’ series – part of the Movement Series campaign – made in collaboration with Unilever’s Premier League partners Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City, have attracted a cumulative 30,000 views on YouTube since its launch in October last year. The City episode – which showed the skills of young English midfielder Phil Foden – drew particular attention.

“That got a lot coverage, especially in the Daily Mail,” says Dinger. “Again, we were providing added value to fans, an extra experience and interaction with their favourite players, all while sticking to what our brand purpose is and keeping the focus on the Rexona brand.”

Inventive activations that use players to engage with fans, and which generate media interest of their own, are a way that Unilever has managed to “cut through” the “extremely cluttered environment” of football sponsorship, says Dinger.

Maintaining relevance

“There is massively increased demand for personalisation,” he adds. “We need to be able to provide tailored content for consumers in the right contextual environment. So that might mean that something that’s right for social media isn’t right for broadcast, or something that fits into football isn’t right for rugby, because of the different ways that those fans engage emotionally with those sports.

“Our mission is to build immersive experiences for consumers and really add value to how they are experiencing or viewing sports – or any passion territories that they’re very interested in, and then find ways to connect that back to our brand purposes.”

In partnership with World Rugby, for instance, Unilever has begun to sponsor the Spirit of Rugby Award through its Dove Men+Care brand. While Dove Men+Care and Rexona are competing in similar markets, the activations can differentiate the two brands and pitch them at separate demographics. The involvement with the Spirit of Rugby Award, which recognises ‘an individual moment of outstanding sportsmanship or care at a grassroots or elite level’, reinforces the Dove brand’s position around wider social issues, while Rexona maintains its focus on athlete performance.

Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Danilo, the stars of Unilever’s activation with Manchester City

Ultimately, Dinger says, the focus is on “giving the consumers a reason to keep reengaging with us and keep understanding how we can emotionally connect with them” in order to “maintain a competitive edge against our market rivals”.

“If we’re not seeing that growth, or that engagement with our campaigns, we need to be nimble enough to realise that and correct it to bring the consumer back on board.”

While each partnership is assessed on its own terms, Unilever is always looking for “business growth and brand impact,” says Dinger. “That’s obviously the key driver for us. Throughout any communication, we’re looking at authentically engaging with consumers, really to drive the emotional connection with our consumers that will increase brand advocacy and brand loyalty.”

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