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“The role of each brand is really important”: Inside PepsiCo’s Champions League sponsorship

For his latest newsletter, deputy editor Sam Carp speaks with Mark Kirkham, PepsiCo's chief marketing officer for international beverages, about the company's plans for the climax of the European soccer season.

26 May 2022 Sam Carp

All eyes will be on Paris on Saturday as Liverpool and Real Madrid go head to head for the right to be crowned champions of Europe.

But it will also be a big moment for Uefa’s Champions League sponsors, who will be glad to see the game being played in front of a full stadium after the last two editions of the showpiece fixture were played either behind closed doors or in front of a limited crowd because of the pandemic.

This week I had a chat with Mark Kirkham, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, international beverages at food and drink giant PepsiCo, who confirmed that one of the highlights throughout this season has been having fans back in stadiums.

“There’s clearly the broadcast side, which I think brands and partners are able to leverage whether fans are in the stadiums [or not],” he said. “But I think the true value of any partnership is how you really drive engagement. For PepsiCo, our ability to do that around the matches, around finals and around different activities is making a big difference this year.”

Indeed, sponsors at large seem intent on making the most of the opportunity. Speaking on this week’s SportsPro Podcast, James English, the managing partner for sport at Fuse, which collaborates with the likes of PepsiCo, FedEx and Just Eat on their Champions League partnerships, said the agency will have around 200 team members on site in France working across influencer marketing, PR campaigns, stadium activations and hospitality programmes.

The true value of any partnership is how you drive engagement. Our ability to do that around the matches, around finals and around different activities is making a big difference this year.

Mark Kirkham, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, International Beverages, PepsiCo

For PepsiCo, a Champions League partner since 2015, its most visible activation during the final is the Pepsi-sponsored opening ceremony, which this year is being headlined by Camila Cabello.

But beyond that, Kirkham was keen to point out that PepsiCo has multiple brands involved in the partnership – Pepsi, Lays and Gatorade – and looks to bring each to life in different ways.

Increasingly, he said, that has meant activating in a way that attempts to drive positive change. That includes using traditional sponsorship assets such as LED boards for Pepsi to display messaging about recycling, as well as more substantial efforts such as the Lay’s RePlay pitch, a surface partially made of reused crisp packets that was unveiled in Turin ahead of last week’s Women’s Champions League final.

Plus, one of the company’s main activations around this week’s game is the final of its Gatorade 5v5 initiative, a global tournament for male and female players aged between 14 and 16.

“We see Uefa as a strategic corporate partner, not just as a brand partner,” Kirkham said. “We do use each brand in different ways. The role of each brand is really important.

“Lay’s is about celebrating the enjoyment of viewing the game and being part of the game experience at home. With Pepsi, we’ve done a lot to bring music and other passion areas through different collaborations tied to the Champions League. And then grassroots football has been key for the Gatorade piece.”

It’s also now two years since PepsiCo extended its backing to the Women’s Champions League, and Kirkham said the company does “the same things” across both competitions.

And as PepsiCo’s Champions League activations become increasingly purpose-driven, Kirkham is confident it is an approach that is paying off.

“We measure our sponsorships as most sponsors do,” he said. “We look across everything from the sales, from the activation, through equities or association with sponsors. What I can say to you is – especially from a purpose standpoint – the way ultimately you have to think about this is what is the relationship you build with fans and athletes?

“Our association with some of the greatest sporting properties in the world really reinforces the role we play in the fans’ and in the players’ lives.”

The Super Bowl obsession

There are going to be changes to the Champions League from 2024 but with the final approaching it’s worth considering some of the alterations that have been floated for the climax of the competition.

Last month ECA chairman and PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi suggested the final could be more like the Super Bowl, an aspiration that almost every sports executive seems to have for their marquee event.

English pointed out on the pod that the Champions League final already brings a lot of Super Bowl-style entertainment with the opening ceremony and a four-day fan festival that sponsors are able to activate at.

More pertinently, though, comparisons with the Super Bowl make me think more of the mooted – and still hypothetical at this stage – Champions League ‘final four’ format, which one imagines would recreate an atmosphere akin to a national team tournament and offer sponsors the opportunity to activate over a entire weeklong festival of soccer.

But English highlighted that such a format – which would do away with two-legged semi-finals – could have a negative impact for sponsors.

“From a sponsor’s perspective, you are losing two hugely valuable semi-final games [with a final four format],” he said. “When you consider the amount of value – especially for a property like the Champions League, with huge in-built media value – cutting out two valuable semi-final legs would have a really negative impact potentially on sponsors’ return on investments.”

Indeed, as I tweeted at the height of Real Madrid’s semi-final comeback, leave it be.

The Michelob Ultra guy

How many pictures have you seen of Tiger Woods teeing off to a backdrop of punters holding their phones aloft, desperate to watch the moment through their screens rather than with their own eyes?

Last week another picture emerged of exactly that, only one man stood out from the crowd, cradling his US$18 can of Michelob Ultra and watching watery-eyed as one of the world’s greatest athletes went to work just yards away from him.

His reward? What appears to be something of an endorsement deal with the beer brand, which has released a line of merchandise immortalising the moment.

Moral of the story: put your phones away.

Top dealers

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has secured a number of sponsors for this year’s Women’s T20 Challenge before the competition is set to morph into something closer resembling the men’s Indian Premier League (IPL).

Fantasy sports platform My11Circle, which is a major partner of the Lucknow IPL team, will be the title sponsor, while deals have also been struck with NFT platform FanCraze, energy drinks brand Boost, and tyre manufacturer CEAT Tyres.


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