Brand Strategy

From Super Bowls to World Cups, Unilever’s sports marketing never stops

And Dove will return to the Super Bowl for the second year in a row in 2025, Unilever USA’s president said.
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Screenshot via Dove US/YouTube

· 5 min read

Unilever has been doubling down on its sports marketing—or should we say tripling down.

The CPG giant, which owns brands like Dove, Hellmann’s, Axe, Ben & Jerry’s, Tressemmé, and Vaseline, has increased its sports media spend threefold since 2020, when sports sponsorships took a dip in the early days of the pandemic. In more recent years, sponsorship revenue has bounced back, and many brands have reported seeing returns on their investments in sports.

“It works really well for our brands,” Herrish Patel, president of Unilever USA, told Marketing Brew. “It allows us to get to audiences and cohorts that really resonate with us, and it also allows us to deliver some of the purpose work on brands like Dove and Hellmann’s.”

Both brands advertised in this year’s Super Bowl, with Hellmann’s returning for the fourth year with an ad tackling food waste, and Dove coming back for the first time in nearly 20 years with an ad about body confidence among young girls in sports. Dove will advertise again during the Super Bowl in 2025, Patel said.

That’s not the only major moment on Unilever’s annual sports marketing calendar: March Madness is a big focus for the company’s brands, along with soccer and college football later in the year.

America’s favorite sport

Unilever usually kicks its annual sports marketing calendar off with the Super Bowl, Patel said, and, unlike most years, two Unilever brands were involved this time around. Dove got back in the game specifically because the brand’s marketing team decided on a purpose-driven campaign, Patel said.

“It’s about not every brand doing sports for the sake of it,” he said, adding that Unilever strives to create sports campaigns that “make material impact in society.”

This year’s Dove Super Bowl campaign, created in partnership with Nike, hinged on a finding from a survey co-commissioned by Dove that 45% of girls drop out of sports by age 14 due to low body confidence, and there were several initiatives designed around changing that. That included a “Body Confident Sport” program for coaches and parents to help foster body confidence in girls, as well as the #KeepHerConfident challenge on TikTok, which encouraged users to “show what girls can do when they stay in sports.”

Additionally, Dove struck up a content partnership with women athlete-founded media and commerce company Togethxr, plus ambassadorships with Kylie Kelce, Venus Williams, and Steve Young.

As part of the campaign, Williams and Young, a former NFL quarterback, coached teams in a flag football game for high school girls from Las Vegas’s Clark County school district that Dove put on with nonprofit GenYouth. With flag football set to become an Olympic sport beginning with the Los Angeles 2028 games, Patel said he’d like to see Unilever continue to lean into that sport, especially on the women’s and girls’ side.

Dove wouldn’t be headed back to the Super Bowl for a second year if there wasn’t a strong business case to do so, Patel said. While he declined to share specific sales or growth numbers around this year’s Dove and Hellmann’s campaigns, he said both went over well in terms of engagement.

Full calendar

After Super Bowl season, Patel and his team pivot to March Madness, and this year marked Unilever’s 13th as part of the NCAA’s official corporate partnership program, which puts its brands in the men’s and women’s tournaments. Unilever served as halftime sponsor for women’s March Madness, and it recently joined WPP media investment agency GroupM’s commitment to double its annual advertising spend on women’s sports across its clients.

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“There’s just so much momentum behind women’s sports right now,” Patel said. It is especially resonant, he said, among Gen Z and millennials: “[They’re] saying they’re watching more women’s sports over the last 12 months, so for us, it’s also a nice way of making the brand contemporary, at the heart of pop culture.”

In the summer, Unilever shifts to soccer. Last year, that meant sponsoring the FIFA Women’s World Cup across personal care brands including Degree, Dove, Lifebuoy, and Lux, which “allows us to really own a global stage,” he said.

Unilever’s deal with FIFA is set to continue through 2027, encompassing the 2024 Copa America tournament, the 2026 men’s World Cup, and the 2027 women’s World Cup. Unilever is also sponsoring the UEFA European Football Championship across multiple brands.

In the fall, it’s back to American football, specifically at the college level, Patel said. Degree was an early entrant to NIL as soon as it went into effect in 2021, and Hellmann’s also has a presence in college football as the official mayonnaise of six top football universities in the south, including the University of Florida and Texas A&M, as of last fall.

“It goes across the entire year,” Patel said. “We like to say we are a sports marketing powerhouse because at some point, there is always something happening.”

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