Inside Hellmann’s endorsement deal with NFL star Will Levis

Hellmann’s this week put on a (mayo) clinic on how to generate earned media, thanks to an unusual endorsement deal with the Tennessee Titans’ rookie quarterback, Will Levis.

In what must surely be one of the most novel athlete endorsement in NFL history, the 33rd overall pick in this year’s draft has inked a deal with the Unilever brand that grants him a lifetime supply of mayonnaise. The quirky partnership was inspired by a pre-draft video showing Levis squirting mayonnaise into his coffee.

Not surprisingly, Tuesday’s deal received widespread coverage in the football-mad U.S., earning headlines in several major publications including the New York Post, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated. It’s Unilever’s first-ever endorsement deal with an athlete, although its popular mayonnaise brand did run a Super Bowl spot this year featuring celebrities Jon Hamm and Brie Larson (get it?), as well as Pete Davidson.

ThisLevis idea was conceived by Edelman’s Toronto-based global creative director, Andrew Simon, who took notice of Levis’ seemingly weird fondness for mayonnaise when it was mentioned during April’s NFL draft.

Levis subsequently admitted that he’d come up with the whole thing as a joke, and that he’s actually a “one cream, one sugar type of guy.” But by then, like any good creative thinker attuned to the power of viral moments in digital culture, Simon had already seen a potential marketing opportunity.

NBA superstar Kevin Durant had just signed a lifetime deal with Nike, and Simon thought that announcing something similar—with mayonnaise replacing running shoes—would be a perfect way to leverage Levis’ coffee and mayonnaise moment.

“Knowing the brand personality, I thought it was quite fitting,” said Simon, who pitched the idea to the brand team.

The Hellmann’s team agreed, and Simon quickly wrote a script in which Levis would announce the unlikely brand partnership during a press conference. Levis’ representatives said yes, and Simon flew out to Tennessee last month for the shoot.

Simon also quarterbacked the shoot, taking the director’s chair for the resulting two-minute video running across digital and social. He’s directed about 10 spots over his career, including several for Unilever’s body spray brand AXE featuring Toronto Raptors stars Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet.

“I do it here and there,” he said. “It’s definitely not my vocation, but it’s an opportunity to direct talent, which I feel very comfortable doing.”

Working with athletes and celebrities can be a challenge for a director because they’re never sure what kind of performance they’re going to be able to elicit, or how willing the talent might be to go along with any impromptu ideas. Athletes also make notoriously poor actors (see here), but Levis was a willing and enthusiastic participant.

“I threw a lot at Will, and he was game,” said Simon. At one point during the shoot, someone from the client team suggested that it would be funny if Levis put some mayonnaise on top of a muffin and took a bite. “He was like ‘Yeah, great’,” said Simon, although that simple “note” did lead to a brief debate about what kind of muffin goes best with mayonnaise.

The press conference sees Levis thank his mom for introducing him to the “beautiful condiment,” as well as the high school lunch lady, who understood the meaning of extra mayonnaise. To make it feel like a legitimate press conference, Simon also urged actors playing the reporters to throw some oddball questions that might “hurry” the quarterback.

One reporter’s query, mayo macchiato or mayo mocha?, actually caused Levis to take some time to legitimately ponder the question.

“I didn’t want to do [the take] again, because it was a very natural reaction from Will being very thoughtful,” said Simon. “There are people who are way better at [directing] than me… but I think we can all do better by letting scripts breathe a bit,  being open to what happens in the moment, and the beauty of improv.”

There’s also none of the “deer in the headlights” acting that has characterized some commercials featuring athletes (like this all-time favourite of The Message). The key, said Simon, was to ensure that Levis never had to stray too far out of the acting pocket.

“[Athletes] don’t have to deliver soliloquies or monologues, so you just have to be smart about how you’re using them,” he explained. “If you’re using humour, you can play off of them. They can play it straight and still be hilarious.”

Toronto, meanwhile, has emerged as something of a creative hub for Edelman in recent years, home to what Simon calls creative “heavy-hitters” including global chief creative officer Judy John, Canadian CCO Anthony Chelvanathan, SVP ECD Krystle Mullin and VP, creative director Shauna Roe.

“When you look at the talent we have in Toronto, it’s not only creative but it’s strategic,” said Simon. “Great ideas can come from anywhere, and we should absolutely celebrate our Toronto talent. It’s not that we’re trying to create a Canadian empire at all, but the talent is here and we’re never shy about putting ideas forward. Even our local clients say ‘It’s great to see you guys performing on an international stage.'”

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that there’s another video showing Levis eating bananas with the peel on. Over to you, Chiquita.


Chris Powell