Sponsorship Sure Unilever

Meet the Member: “You get great attention from elite level sport, but the grassroots is where you can make a real difference”

August 2, 2023

This week we caught up with Emily Heath, Global Brand Director for Sure to speak about their involvement in sport and how sports partnerships have evolved in the last few years.

So Emily to kick us off, take us through your journey in sport?

I am a bit of a sports junkie to be honest, sport plays a massive part of my life and as a family we love getting active. I can’t remember not taking part in sport whether in school or recreationally. When I was growing up, I dreamed of being an Olympic Skier. But then I stupidly broke my leg when I was seven. I ended up marrying an ex-Olympian so I married into sport as well. Now I spend my weekends with my kids doing activities like climbing, running and cycling. We can’t wait for them to get to the age where they can play team sports.

In terms of work, I never really wanted to work in sport and because of that I did a fashion degree. After my degree, I did the natural thing and ended up working in Pharmaceuticals, and from there transitioned over to Unilever and eventually Rexona, which is probably Unilever’s sportiest brand. 

You have been at Unilever for 18 years, how has your role evolved over that time?

I came into the business during the recession so I was really grateful for any work really. I was a project manager and it was a great way to just get a foot in the door really. I then moved to Brand Marketing at Dove. I started out in the innovation side of the business and  moved over to work on engagement which is more about communicating the brand to people. So a lot of social media, PR and digital work. Then seven years ago I moved to Rexona to do something similar.

I have really enjoyed working on trying to make the brand as culturally relevant as possible through certain partnerships and PR around that.

Why is it important for Unilever to be involved in sport?

I think it is such a massive part of culture, very few things bring people together like sport does. It is also something that you can get involved in at any level from kicking a ball around in the park all the way through to attending a Premier League match. It also doesn’t discriminate; you can be any race, gender, sexuality, from any background and you can still play. 

It also plays a massive role in the mental well being of a lot of people, so for Unilever to be able to do what we can to help in that area is really important.

What are some of the key things you are trying to achieve through your partnerships with elite clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea?

We started the partnerships back in 2016 as a route to engaging more men. We originally had three teams with Everton, Southampton and Chelsea because we wanted to ensure we had a good geographical footprint across the country. That really helped build our brand in and around football so people were familiar with us. After one year of that we moved to just partnering with Chelsea and Manchester City. A lot of the drive behind that was because we wanted clubs that have a global footprint because the partnerships were a big part of the global business, not just our UK business.

So it started out as a way to engage men, but it has become a lot more than that. It is now a great way to engage our core consumer base; both men and women, and it gives us a chance to engage with consumers for nine to ten months a year. It also gives us the chance to innovate with those partners and get involved in the grassroots game with them as well. We have been able to partner with Manchester City in their community programme and also Chelsea’s amputee programme along with their women’s side as well. 

We really enjoy these partnerships and work well with the clubs. We’ve been with them now for a long time. So therefore that association, our brand association, with those clubs is getting stronger and stronger. It’s really important that they are long term partnerships, not just flipping and flopping between clubs, because that helps to build strength to be associated with sport (football), and the clubs themselves.

You are not just working at the top end of sport, you have invested heavily into grassroots sport as well. Why is this important for Unilever?

You get great attention from the elite level sport, but the grassroots level is where you can make a real difference. Through our work with vulnerable communities, we have been able to make sure as many people as possible have access to football and sport. We have a social purpose programme called the Breaking Limits Programme which we launched in 2021; it is currently in the UK and seven other markets. We are working with 43 NGOs globally to help build inclusion, confidence, resilience, and a welcoming environment for young people from very vulnerable communities to come and feel like they belong in either football or other sports. 

It’s become something that’s really important to us as a brand and we will continue to build on year on year because it brings us into a new, younger audience, but it also ensures that we are actually part of the solution on the ground to ensure that everyone has access to movement.

With the sponsorship space evolving, how are the conversations about partnerships you are having with clubs changing?

Yes, we have seen a big shift in this especially where sponsorship was 10-15 years ago where it was basically a badging exercise. We’ve seen a shift in the sponsorships over the last couple of years. Partnerships are being built less on that kind of pay per post or appearance models, and more on brands working with partners on values to create a deeper, more impactful relationship. It’s one of our deciding factors when identifying partners; how we can work together to create more impact and change on issues that we both care about. So whether that’s around gender inclusion, whether that’s about giving more opportunity to vulnerable children within those vulnerable communities, or whether it’s about how we can create the most engaging content for our core consumer.

I would say our partnerships with Chelsea and Man City have evolved since day one to now. At the beginning it was about LEDs, but a little bit of money can’t buy experiences for our consumers. Now, they’re highly engaged with our social impact programme. We’re bringing their players more into our core content, but also into coaching sessions with our social impact programme as well. 

This is why Unilever has embarked on a new multi-year partnership with FIFA, because we see the likes of football being a huge opportunity to drive a lot of positive change on the ground as well as driving mass awareness to the likes of the World Cup or the Women’s World Cup.

Lastly, what is your dream sports property to work on?

My dream would actually be the Olympics because I’ve been an Olympic junkie since I was a kid. I always think of the Olympics as the ultimate sporting event so to be able to work on that would be incredible.

Sponsorship Sure Unilever