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How Agencies Helped Bring Duke's CFB Deal to Life Amid COVID-19

The Athletic takes a deep dive into the new partnership between the Charlotte Sports Foundation and Duke's Mayonnaise and how the organizations leveraged their agency partners like Bespoke to help bring the partnership to life in today's virtual workforce.

A mayo movement: Duke’s Mayo Bowl lit up social media, and that’s just the start

The Athletic

Let the record reflect: Luke Kuechly was, in fact, offered a trash can.

And understandably so. What Steve Luquire — Kuechly’s close friend and the CEO of Charlotte-based advertising agency Luquire George Andrews — was asking of the former Carolina Panthers star was … well, not a small ask.

Star in a short commercial, this time to promote the newest title sponsor of Charlotte’s annual college football bowl? Sure, Kuechly has done ads before. No problem.

But make, then eat, 20 tomato sandwiches in the process?

“I’ll tell you this,” Luquire says, “he hasn’t eaten that much mayonnaise in his life.”

So over the course of the 20 takes, Kuechly was offered a bin to the side. “We’re like, Luke, you can spit it out if you want,” recalls Miller Yoho, the bowl’s social media manager. “Like, obviously that’s a lot of food.” And yet Kuechly plowed on, much like he did during his playing days. The result was 38 seconds of pure video gold — and the focal point of arguably the most successful bowl sponsor announcement in recent memory.

A bold claim, perhaps, but the data supports it. Kuechly’s video, which revealed Duke’s Mayonnaise as the new title sponsor of Charlotte’s annual postseason bowl (and season-opening kickoff game), had about 500,000 views on the day of the announcement alone. The release generated 2.8 billion social media impressions — “billion with a B,” says Danny Morrison, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation — which, for reference, is about double what a $5 million Super Bowl campaign nets on Twitter. Within an hour, the flood of web traffic crashed Duke’s corporate website.

“I saw one report that it was trending higher than Fauci that morning,” Yoho says. “You know, Dr. (Anthony) Fauci. It was all over the place.”

So even if it’s not the most successful announcement, it’s clearly in that realm. At the very least, it’s the only title sponsorship announcement being made in the midst of a global pandemic. That alone makes this case something of an anomaly.

“The pandemic period would seem like the worst time in the world to introduce a new bowl,” Luquire says. “But people are just starving for sports. You’re in the Dead Sea zone. And out comes this kind of interesting, new title sponsor of a bowl game.”

Charlotte’s two annual football games, previously sponsored by Belk, have a significant impact on the city’s hospitality industry and economy. Per the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, those two games have accounted for roughly $145 million flowing into the Queen City over the past three years. And the agreement between Duke’s and the Charlotte Sports Foundation, the nonprofit responsible for organizing the games, is worth several million dollars annually; Duke’s expects to see a similar boost to its brand value.

Point being, there’s serious money at stake here.

So how exactly did such a successful reveal — for mayonnaise, of all things — come together?

The wheels started churning in late March, weeks after the onset of COVID-19 ground the sports world to a halt. At that time, Morrison says, CSF was engaged with about five potential corporate partners. One day Morrison received a call from his longtime friend Bob Porcaro, the president of Chicago-based GRP Media. Porcaro had a client in the Southeast looking to do something bold, he told Morrison, with bowl sponsorship high on said client’s wish list.

“I’ll be the first to tell you: we want to make mayonnaise cool,” says Tom Barbitta, the chief marketing officer at Sauer Brands, which owns Duke’s. “There’s other condiments, you know who they are — marinades, hot sauces, rubs, all sorts of products and foods — that are cool. But mayonnaise? Not so sure it’s that cool. So this is also an attempt on our part to do something that’s really going to be noticed. Something that’s really going to break away from the norm.”

That energy motivated both sides. So Zoom calls ensued, and in two short months, Duke’s had reached a preliminary agreement with CSF. At which point came the rest of the planning for the announcement, roughly two weeks later.

CSF partnered with a number of parties to get that done: LGA and Luquire, on the advertising and public relations end; Bespoke Sports and Entertainment Marketing, for activation purposes; and The Littlefield Company (of which Yoho is the COO) for video production. More than just those partnerships, though, came the relationships the sides  facilitated.

Namely, it was Luquire’s friendship with Kuechly, as well as Bespoke CEO Mike Boykin’s friendship with ESPN host Maria Taylor. That meant Kuechly signed up for the video shoot, and Taylor to host a virtual press conference the day of the announcement.

Again, all of these multi-million dollar deals being struck with no in-person meetings. In fact, Morrison didn’t meet a Duke’s representative until the morning of the Kuechly shoot. And it wasn’t until four days later — on the eve of the announcement — that he met Sauer Brands president and CEO Martin Kelly.

“Just a different way of meeting people,” Morrison says with a chuckle.

Still, it got done. It always made sense from a football perspective, what with Duke’s’ Southeastern foothold and the bowl’s ACC and SEC ties (the bowl is also tied in with the Big Ten), but the logistics threatened to complicate the deal. Instead, a lack of in-person meetings forced productive collaboration and creativity. And voila, the result filled a sports vacuum.

“It’s impossible to understand the sports-social media landscape right now, with everything that’s happening in the world,” Yoho says. “It was so surprising, in a good way, that people wanted to have fun online. There was a period of time where it was actually fun to talk about mayonnaise and football, and think about the season.”

Why, then — other than the weirdness of mayonnaise — was this such a hit? Or was it truly just a void that needed filling, and a condiment willing to do so?

The lack of other sports news almost certainly played a role. But so did Duke’s willingness to embrace what it is: a goofy brand doing something original.

“I call it a mayo movement,” Barbitta says. “I know it sounds funny, but we are going to wake up this category, and we’re going to do it through football and through this community.”

Listen as Barbitta mentions the community there. A legacy Southern brand, Duke’s has been based out of Greenville, S.C., for more than 100 years. More than just silly Internet quips or a one-time video, Morrison says the announcement was so successful because the company was willing to make a commitment financially at a time few others would.

“Nothing’s been hurt more than hotels and restaurants, the whole tourism industry,” Morrison says. “That was an important driver for them: that during this pandemic time, they wanted to make a statement.”

Beyond the announcement, Duke’s is already giving back to Charlotte. The company is selling “Mayo Ambassador” shirts with the proceeds going to a food bank; more than $5,000 has been raised.

So, a silly brand. (If a winning coach isn’t doused in a cooler of mayo, it’ll be an upset.) An aggressive approach, assisted by a future Hall of Famer and local icon in Kuechly. A sports vacuum, desperately waiting to be filled. And a generous first step that tangibly improves the community. Turns out, that’s the, uh, winning recipe.

One, surely, with extra mayo.


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