Football is great. Crisps are great. Footballers on crisp packets are bloody brilliant. Oh for the days of Salt & Lineker…
It’s getting harder to sell junk food to kids using football, and it’s all Jamie Oliver’s fault. Probably.
But savoury snack giant Walkers has managed to sustain a surprisingly healthy relationship with British football over the last few decades — and not only with Leicester City.
Founded in the 1880s by Mansfield-born Henry Walker, Walkers was originally a butcher’s shop, but in 1948 made a permanent transfer to crisps in response to post-war meat rationing.
Today, the Leicester-based company leads the UK’s potato snacks market by some margin.
But there’s much more to Walkers than crisps. Almost by geographical coincidence, the Walkers brand is now strongly associated with football, thanks to its partnership with a fellow product of Leicester: broadcaster and former footballer Gary Lineker.
Like salt and vinegar, it was a match seemingly made in heaven.
Walkers snapped up Lineker for a reported £200,000 back in 1994, and has since conducted much of its marketing on a football theme, running a series of adverts in which a mischievous Lineker attempts to steal crisps from various victims, including other footballers.
And Walkers readily admits the importance of Lineker to the brand’s PepsiCo-funded evolution during the 90s.
Martin Glenn, who joined Walkers as a marketing executive in 1992, oversaw the Lineker deal and eventually became the company’s CEO and Director in 1998. His thoughts on Lineker sum up why the partnership has worked so well, and over such a long period.
“The notion that our crisps were so delicious that they could persuade a chap as famously nice as Gary to steal from children was one that could be reworked over and over again in countless different ways,” Glenn wrote in his 2005 book The Best Job in the World.
“The fact that he proved so telegenic in that very first commercial was a huge bonus.”
For many of us, however, Walkers TV ads were actually a relatively minor aspect of the brand’s relationship with football. The real romance was found on the packets.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have around eight or nine memories from primary school, and two of them are about Walkers crisp flavours named after footballers.
The first of these, arguably the pinnacle of football-crisp overlap, was “Salt & Lineker”, created to “celebrate the new signing of brand mascot Gary” by giving him his own flavour.
Not in a technical sense, of course — they were just Salt & Vinegar. But with a cartoon Lineker and punny name on the packet, Walkers struck gold.
SALT AND LINEKER. pic.twitter.com/byPsd0ilAE
— Bunty Hoven (@buntyhoven) March 5, 2018
The success of Salt & Lineker even paved the way for another English striker to follow in the footsteps of the Match of the Day presenter.
Having taken the world by storm at the 1998 World Cup, young Michael Owen became a sensation at home and abroad, supplementing his Liverpool and England exploits with extracurricular activities like children’s TV show Hero to Zero.
Here was a striker clearly meriting his own crisp flavour.
In fact, so popular was Owen that Walkers ignored the phonetically obvious choice of “Cheese & Unsworth” to instead launch “Cheese & Owen” in February 1999.
The special edition crisps added to the forward’s cultural ubiquity, while temporarily putting him in the blue of Everton — yet more salt in the wound for David, who had rejoined The Toffees that very season.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the blonde, chiselled figure on the special Cheese & Onion packets looked absolutely nothing like Michael Owen (in contrast to the uncanny Lineker illustration), but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t automatically buy Cheese & Owen crisps if you saw them in Tesco tomorrow.
— The 90s Football Podcast (@AK90s) December 11, 2015
Yet see them you won’t: the flavour was short-lived, with both Cheese & Owen and Salt & Lineker disappearing off shelves despite Owen continuing to stick it in the onion bag for club and country.
It appeared to be the end of a golden, wonderful age of football-crisp harmony. But was it?
Not long into the new millennium, playground rumours suggested a third footballer tie-in was on the way. The flavour was popular, the pun obvious, and the player at the peak of his powers.
In January 2001, Rick Hewett of the Sunday Mirror reported that “soccer superstar” David Beckham, then of Manchester United, was “set to earn yet another packet — by putting his name to a multi-million-pound advertising campaign with Walkers crisps.”
Walkers, the story explained, had been given the green light to hash out a deal with Beckham after the midfielder’s lawyers settled a dispute with Jerome Martin, a Kent-based businessman who had attempted to patent the name “Smokey Beckham”.
With Martin paid off, Beckham looked set to become the third player in the Walkers series.
Only he didn’t. Smokey Bacon remained Smokey Bacon.
I reached out to Walkers to see if they would shed some light on Smokey Beckham, but the mega-brand couldn’t comment directly on the events of 2001.
“The only other official player collaboration that Walkers have participated in since the Lineker and Owen flavours was the limited edition ‘Vardy Salted’, created in December 2015 in recognition of…rags-to-riches centre forward Jamie Vardy,” a representative said.
The most likely explanation, of course, is that Golden Balls simply demanded more money than Walkers could offer. However, it’s also possible that the crisp brand had a change of heart.
Walkers had, after all, enjoyed huge success with archetypal goal-poachers like Lineker and Owen. Perhaps Glenn and his team considered the deployment of a creative midfielder too much of a tactical risk. All we know is that nobody ever saw a cartoon Becks on the maroon packet.
That was the end of player flavours on a national scale, but Leicester City supporters continued to eat them up. After unveiling the “Walkers Stadium” (now the King Power) in 2002, the long-time club partner has offered fans various limited edition bags over the years.
The aforementioned “Vardy Salted” came after Jamie’s goalscoring run in 2015, while “Salt & Victory” followed the eventual title triumph in 2016.
“Cheers & Onion” concluded the triptych in 2017 as a celebration of the team reaching the Champions League knockout stages. (Sorry, but that last one is rubbish.)
— Leicester City (@LCFC) March 14, 2017
It was even happening years before the fairytale season. In 2003, Walkers made 700,000 bags of a “Leicester’s Cheese & Chive” flavour that had Muzzy Izzet and Jordan Stewart on the packet. (Planet Football will buy extant units of that bag for literally any amount of money.)
But if the presence of Muzzy Izzet on a crisp packet doesn’t justify the alleged “weirdness” of the Walkers-football relationship, perhaps some of the company’s more left-field football promotions do.
New flavours (actual new flavours, not oblique rhymes) are always fun, and to coincide with the 2010 World Cup, the snack giant put out a number of limited edition flavours based on national dishes of participating nations: Japanese chicken teriyaki, Argentinian flame-grilled steak, and flavours for a handful of teams that ended up not qualifying. Not bad.
In 2017, however, Walkers’ biggest football campaign was an absolute shocker.
As part of PepsiCo’s sponsorship deal with the Champions League, Walkers came up with a seemingly innocuous marketing ploy ahead of the final in Cardiff.
The campaign encouraged fans to upload selfies with the hashtag #WalkersWave, upon which Walkers would put their faces on a digitally generated “Mexican wave” taking place outside the Principality Stadium.
Good idea. I mean, nobody was ever going to upload pictures of Harold Shipman, Rolf Harris, Fred West, Josef Fritzl, Jimmy Savile, Purple Aki, or Adam Johnson, were they?
— Alain Tolhurst (@Alain_Tolhurst) May 25, 2017
Yes, the slightly-too-21st-century gimmick meant we were treated to the disturbing sight of Gary Lineker holding a framed portrait of Harold Shipman, sincerely praising the serial killer for his “nice selfie”.
Considering the longevity of Walkers’ football success, a blip like that was no disaster. But the overwrought and unsuccessful campaign did make you wish for the simpler pleasures of Salt & Lineker and Cheese & Owen.
The question is, could that can kind of promotion happen again on a national scale?
Perhaps when the nation has a more popular football icon than Wayne Rooney, we should consider petitioning Walkers to reintroduce player flavours. Kids love them. We love them. Walkers gets a ton of money. Now who’s got Martin Glenn’s phone number?
Oh yeah, the former Walkers chief is now CEO of The FA.