Jack Grealish flicks back his long hair and carefully applies a new headband.
It’s day three of promotional content across his social media platform where new sponsors Puma are taking centre stage.
Grealish has been whisked away to the sportswear brand’s headquarters in Germany after striking a multi-million-pound deal on enhanced terms after leaving a long-standing partnership with American company Nike.
The pull of working with a brand who “does things differently” and wants to put the 27-year-old England winger at the forefront of their global plans naturally appealed.
Hours of filming for content creation is nothing new for the Manchester City star, who in the past has struck comparable deals with Gucci and Bose among others.
He poses for pictures, shows off his new boots and begins to shine a variety of sports clothing in a new light. For Puma, who are also sponsors of Manchester City, Grealish sparkles in a golf outfit, as a DJ, and out on the training pitch. Back at the Etihad Stadium where further picture opportunities follow, he again looks the part.
Then to wrap up, it’s time to put on the hairband — complete with the new branding, of course — and deliver his customary cheeky grin. Perfect content for his enormous 15million combined social media following — of which over 30 per cent are female.
We’re delighted to announce that @JackGrealish is a PUMA.
— PUMA Football (@pumafootball) March 6, 2023
Grealish has the iconic and instantly-recognisable looks, the status and the personality which has made him England’s most marketable footballer; a player described as the “full package” by industry experts.
“A guy who plays like Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) and is as gorgeous as (David) Beckham is going to be very appealing to leading brands,” says Ged Colleypriest, the founder of Underdog Sports Marketing, an independent agency set up to help brands, clubs and sporting organisations create better sports partnerships.
“His existing sponsors are all about the image, so who better to get than Jack Grealish wearing your headphones or showing off some designer clothing? He’s unique because he’s so recognisable but there’s so much more to him because of his personality.”
ICM Stellar agency look after Grealish both on and off the pitch and have watched him grow into one of their top clients. His commercial opportunities are endless, as brands look to engage the new breed of fan and speak to all genders via football.
Where exactly Grealish ranks as a footballer is debatable. He came through the youth system at Aston Villa, attracted early interest from Tottenham Hotspur but stuck around to guide the club he supported as a boy back into the Premier League after three years in the Championship.
As Villa captain, he was seen as a performance leader: a wonderfully-gifted attacker who scored and set up goals but also produced moments of magic. He was a genuine entertainer.
At Manchester City, the club he joined for a British-record transfer of £100million ($120.2m), he became a Premier League winner in his first season but struggled for game time.
His impact in more recent months, however, has grown. He is again a crucial player — this time in a side chasing both domestic and European success.
So where does that put him in the world standings? Somewhere in the top 100? Top 50? Top 30, even?
That is a matter of opinion. Many of his former team-mates at Villa rank him as the best they have ever played alongside — and up there with the most talented in the division. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola regularly reiterates his delight at having him in his team.
In the England camp, his popularity is unquestionable. Yet he isn’t seen as the leading force under Gareth Southgate. Not yet, anyway.
But major brands are looking for more these days, and Grealish’s authenticity is what sets him apart from his peers. Yes, he still has the on-pitch flair and the high-profile status of a Premier League star, but he’s also able to engage a young audience — something historic brands now see as their biggest challenge.
“There’s a qualitative and a quantitative element to his appeal,” says Dan Connor, co-owner of AND THE NEW, a creative-digital sports marketing agency that delivers campaigns with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester City and the Mercedes Formula 1 Team, and who has worked closely with Grealish in the past.
“The qualitative is that Jack is Jack: in his twenties, strapping, charming, charitable, generous — and bloody good at football. For those brands wanting a face for their product, he ticks all the boxes.
“It’s also worth noting a big shift in what has made a player truly marketable in recent times — with authenticity being the key driver of that. They don’t come more genuine than Jack.
“I was fortunate to have insight into that at Aston Villa. There’s no point telling him to act a certain way, he’s too honest in that sense. Had Jack been from a different generation, he probably would’ve been a lot more guarded and protected by his club and entourage. But in this age where character and authenticity are encouraged and pivotal to building that appeal and connection with younger audiences, the likes of Jack are a dream for any brand.”
And the quantitative element?
“It’s the social reach of his platforms, but also the type of reach,” Connor says.
“Significantly, he outscores all of his England team-mates when it comes to TikTok following, and all but Kevin De Bruyne when it comes to his Manchester City team-mates on the platform. And which is the platform where out-and-out organic reach is currently highest? Where 10 to 29-year-olds make up more than half of its global user base? Where content is rawer, unscripted and relies on personality to perform? It’s TikTok.
“Put simply, he’s a leading light when it comes to brand criteria for partnerships, and especially those looking to tap into new and younger audiences.”
Brands no longer see athletes as endorsers but more as influencers, and Grealish’s ability to tell stories in an engaging way stands out.
“A key part of these brands’ objectives will be tapping into younger demographics who can be monetized in ways far beyond buying a pair of football boots,” Connor adds.
“It’s about building long-term equity with consumers. These audiences live for content — and authentic content at that, which Jack provides in abundance.”
That Grealish is a growing star also helps. He’s only playing in his second Champions League campaign, while his potential both on the pitch and off it is still rising.
After his move from Villa to Man City, his Instagram following increased from 1.6m to 4.3m within five months.
Grealish has a huge influence on followers aged 25 and under, according to Ear to the Ground’s Fan Intelligence Network. This platform monitors the views of over “11,000 of the most culturally-influential sports fans in the world”.
He is the poster boy for Generation Z, with a bigger following than any of his peers in the England squad across all social media channels.
Research shows that he is also one of the 10 most popular players in Europe with 14 to 18-year-olds in the UK.
“He looks comfortable in whatever he does — from Gucci photoshoots to chatting to the canteen staff at the club, appearing on the front cover of magazines, being the funniest player in England’s Lions’ Den content to scoring in the Premier League,” says Owen Laverty, the chief innovation officer at Ear to the Ground.
“He makes all of those things feel equally normal, grounded and real — and that’s something brands want ambassadors for. They’re interested in ambassadors that can tell personal, human stories for them.
“There is a huge trend in campaigns and content from brands that feel unscripted, authentic, real and less polished. This type of content relates to fans, but it’s not an environment that most athletes are comfortable in.”
Staff at Gucci share memories of Grealish’s friendly manner during their interactions, and when he spent the day working as an Amazon delivery driver — surprising customers with deliveries — he was engaging throughout.
There are long-serving staff members at Villa who still describe him as the best player they have ever worked with, and that’s primarily based on his off-field demeanour.
A rarely-told story is how he would regularly take time out to sign Villa merchandise and, through his family, send out items to disabled fans or those with life-limiting illnesses.
Much of what he does is also in private. Only last month he was made aware that a young Villa fan in Hertfordshire had lost his dad to cancer before Christmas. He sent a 45-second video message, full of emotion and feeling, to lift Rupert Cartwright’s spirits, promising to send him a signed shirt. The shirt was with Cartwright in a fortnight, and those who saw the boy’s face spoke of how priceless the gestures were.
Other shows of affection are publicly viewed and typically well-received. Until this week, his “pinned” Twitter post was a celebration for a young Man City fan, Finley, who has cerebral palsy, the same condition Grealish’s younger sister Holly has.
For you Finlay ❤️ pic.twitter.com/BomJEA0oy6
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) November 21, 2022
“It’s all authentic: the video with Finley, the celebration, the awareness he tries to raise for his sister,” Colleypriest says. “That is why his appeal is so strong because of all the different elements that make him who he is.”
But it would be too simplistic to suggest that Grealish is striking multi-million-pound deals solely because of his personality and playing skills.
“Marketing is still a famously vain industry and being good-looking makes it a lot easier,” Colleypriest says. “Brands want to know whether you will look good on a social media graphic or a billboard. That still makes a big difference, so for a brand like Puma to have access to his image is crucial.
“Grealish has an iconic look. Everything about him, from the hair to his calves, is instantly recognisable. If you saw a silhouette of him you would instantly know who it is.
“In a world where we are exposed to more and more advertising, having a cut-through — someone who can capture attention, stop you scrolling or make your head turn at a bus stop — is really valuable for a brand. It’s why something so simple as putting on a hairband works so well. I’m sure with the number of boots he is going to be showing off his legs will be a big thing too.”
There was a time when Grealish’s previous party-boy image threatened to derail a blossoming career, but he has since become more responsible. Although it’s no secret that brands like his loveable-rogue persona.
Puma, who are working with more people in the music industry, have plans to use Grealish for the cultural side of their brand advertising.
“Historically, a lot of deals were done with athletes who were media-trained, safe, and appealed to the mass audience,” Laverty says. “But it has become tougher for brands to stand out and to be at the edge or forefront of culture in an authentic way.
“For the types of brands he is doing deals with — Gucci, Puma, Bose, etc — these are brands trying to create unique positions at the forefront of sports and culture. Grealish comfortably operates in that space. He’s most comfortable on the football pitch, but equally comfortable at a high-fashion shoot, on a twitch FIFA stream or behind the decks in a club.”
Connor agrees, adding: “Right now, it’s that he’s one of the most culturally-relevant footballers in the market. Does he resonate with people that like football? Yes. Does he resonate with a teenage fan who absorbs TikTok all day? Yes. Is he competing for the biggest prizes in the game? Yes. Can he, therefore, be the difference between a brand and a conversion for them? Yes — thousands of times over.”
Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar remains Puma’s most famous sportsperson following Usain Bolt’s retirement from athletics.
But the sportswear brand have a slogan that couldn’t be more pertinent to their latest addition: Be Brave, Be Confident, Be Determined, Be Joyful.
Jack Grealish brings all those words to life.
(Top image: Sam Richardson/Getty Images)