BigShot Q&A: Herbalife Senior Director – Brian McKinley

Brian McKinley talks about sponsorship in soccer, Herbalife’s relationship with the LA Galaxy and brand recognition
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Brian McKinley - Senior Director of International Sports Marketing at Herbalife

Brian McKinley is currently the Director of International Sports Marketing at Herbalife, which is perhaps best known as the jersey sponsors for the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS. In addition to the LA Galaxy, his organization also sponsors the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi. McKinley has helped Herbalife organize and plan several sponsoring events within the soccer community.


Tell us a little bit about Herbalife. What is it and what does it produce?

BM: Herbalife is a global nutrition company. So we’re in 81 markets around the world. We’re a company whose products are sold exclusively through the direct sales channel meaning we sell our products to independent distributors who then market and sell them out the general public. It’s been around for more than 30 years. Our products are everything you can think of in the nutrition space so everything from traditional supplements, vitamins, omega-3s, [and] joint support products to weight-loss program products to sport products to outer-care, meaning skin-care, products.

Is Herbalife a Multi-level Marketing (MLM) company? Some Americans think MLM and think of scams and get-rich-quick schemes, is that an unfair stigma to this business model?

BM: Yes, we are direct sales and multi-level marketing company, so we exclusively sell through our distributor network and those distributors work within a tier-based system which allows them to make royalties off of people within their own group.

I’m not going to speak for the industry, that’s not my business. I can speak to Herbalife. It’s an unfair stigma to Herbalife if people are putting that sort of tag to our name. We feel very strongly in the ethics we promote, the way our distributors operate and we feel very strongly that our method of sale, although unique to the traditional consumer product space, is actually a very effective way to sell the products that we sell. We have a person to person business that allows people to actually get involved with the people who are providing their nutrition products where we can educate people on a much more consistent basis. [You] know, instead of walking in the store and pulling something off the shelf, you actually get a nutritional experience which in today’s world of nutrition is necessary.

Outside of the USA, what are your target markets?

BM: We’re like most traditional multi-national companies. Certainly the Korea’s, China’s, Russia’s, Brazils, Indonesia’s, India’s, U.S., Mexico are basically our major markets. But you know it depends when you go to region to region where the emphasis might be. Each country has its own unique business to it and we certainly do our best to support all countries particularly when it comes to the kind of sponsorship to sports space and soccer space.

Did the LA Galaxy approach Herbalife or did you approach them?

BM: We’ve had a long standing relationship with AEG; it goes back about seven years. We initially had a sounding partnership with the Home Depot Center. We had a direct relationship with the Galaxy as well. We had an existing relationship so that more came about through discussions when we found out the MLS was opening up jerseys for sale. I would hope at least, I believe, we were one of the first people that the Galaxy talked to. I would say … they probably came to us, but we were definitely intrigued and interested in doing more with our relationship with the Galaxy at the time.

What are the goals of the relationship for Herbalife?

BM: In everything we do in the soccer, in the sports space is focused on two things. One is to increase our brand and credibility amongst general consumers and the other thing is to really have authentic relationships that our distributors can feel proud and confident about. So from a growth perspective, we want to continue to help globalize the Galaxy brand. The bigger brand that they are, the better relationship it is for us. And you certainly look at the Galaxy relationship as a global relationship. This is not a LA-based relationship, this is not a U.S.-based relationship, [and] this is a global-based relationship.

Why American soccer, why now?

BM: I think there are lots of reasons. We did soccer because of the global platform that it is. It is truly the world’s sport and as a multi-national company that’s got very few marketing dollars, we wanted marketing dollars that worked in every corner of the world and soccer is a way for that to happen. And obviously the exposure David Beckham brings to the table in the Galaxy … was a huge benefit to that.

Herbalife works with a lot of soccer clubs worldwide, why is soccer the best vehicle to promote the company?

BM: The participatory nature of the sport really just makes it a great fit for us wanting to promote health and wellness across everything that we do.

Herbalife sponsors Lionel Messi, talk about that relationship with the best player on the planet.

BM: We have an individual relationship with Leo as well as a relationship with Barcelona. It’s actually a pretty amazing relationship because the terms of our agreement were based on a mutual goal of making a difference in the places we operate. Barcelona’s tag line is basically ‘more than a club’ and we look at ourselves as more than a company, you know somebody who really wants to make a difference in people’s lives.

With Messi it’s a lot about the same stuff. If you look at a lot of the stuff Messi does off the field it is about making differences in people’s lives. He believes in good healthy nutrition in being a key driver to his success on the field. So all those connections to nutrition, how we promote our business, how he promotes his brand just became a logical fit.

You guys also sponsor the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). Talk a little about that relationship? Does Herbalife sponsor any youth soccer leagues or clubs?

BM: It’s probably one of our most unique relationships. One, we were the first company that AYSO ever allowed to be placed on their jersey from a corporate perspective, which was a huge win. We don’t sponsor any one club or one league within it – it’s a nation-wide deal. The focus of it is really nutrition education. It’s not just a marketing opportunity, it’s about much more.

What are some benefits to advertising with a professional soccer club?

BM: When you kind of look at the overall sports universe, there are places where nutrition has a bigger impact. Soccer … it’s a grueling sport – it’s a lot of games over a long period of time and nutrition is a key factor in that. So one is that brand builds and two is that connection to product … and soccer has been that platform that delivered. We’ve looked at other opportunities – we’ve looked at motor sports, the triathlon world, the marathon world – but soccer right now delivers both for us.

Are the LA Galaxy the ideal sports club to sponsor?

BM: It all depends on the company. It is ideal for us, it’s great. I’m not going to put them up against the relationship with Barcelona; they’re both very good relationships. The Galaxy with their initiatives, with their designated players that they’ve brought in, with the international schedule they’ve chosen to play … has made all of it a very good fit for us. Is it perfect? Is it ideal? I think anybody in the sponsorship world would say no sponsorship deal is perfect.

Do you see the LA Galaxy as the most internationally well-known soccer club from the USA today?

BM: I would say without a doubt. Obviously, David Beckham’s been a huge factor in that. But the initiatives by the team of taking advantage of those opportunities and making the most of them, I don’t think there’s any other MLS team out there playing a Asia road tour like the Galaxy did this past season and every offseason basically or has, you know, as much international interest. They’re out there pushing to sign more international players, they’re reaching deeper than most of the MLS clubs are, to really, truly globalize their brand, which is great. It’s good for U.S. Soccer, it’s good for MLS.

What factors did the presence of David Beckham, one of the most popular people – sports or otherwise – in the world, have in Herbalife’s decision to sponsor the Galaxy?

BM: I mean that was a huge factor. I mean when it came to the jersey and the value that one was going to put against that, David Beckham, his brand value is tremendous and I don’t think anybody’s going to hide from that fact. I would say it was much less of a factor when we went through the renewal process. We really felt strongly that the Galaxy had built up a brand that had the value that we needed to justify to send with or without Beckham. It’s obviously a huge factor; no one’s going to hide from that.

Did the fact that the LA Galaxy are your local team make them the easiest choice?

BM: The company has its own mission: to support these communities of which we live and operate in and supporting LA-based sports organizations plays right. It’s a big factor. These aren’t just buys, these aren’t just ad-buys for us, [and] we use our relationships in more unique ways. We take advantage of the Galaxy in ways that most consumer companies just don’t. And the fact that they’re in here in LA and we’re able to do that is a huge benefit.

How has sponsoring an MLS soccer club helped Herbalife?

BM: There are a lot of key differences. Obviously dealing with soccer in the US versus dealing with it in another market where most likely it’s the number one sport in that market. The league structure in the US makes things a little different versus the other teams where there’s more independence form team to team. The rights and benefits are the rights and benefits from across the board. But the big difference is in the reach. But that’s one of the great things about the MLS and the MLS at this time. It’s great to be involved in … a sport that’s still working its way up to be a big player in the sports world in the U.S.

The other LA-based MLS team Chivas USA is owned by Jorge Vergara of Grupo Omnilife, an industry competitor of Herbalife. Did that play any part in the decision to sponsor the LA Galaxy?

BM: Absolutely none. We’re not a company that would sign a deal based on that. Everything we do is more just about finding the right relationships. We think we have a great brand and a great company. We pride ourselves on ourselves, not tearing down other people in any way, shape or form or competing in that type of way.

Have you seen brand recognition, interest and sales grow since working with the Galaxy? Can you say what kind of percentage growth?

BM: It’s really hard. The company has grown. Our business has grown tremendously since we’ve been involved with the Galaxy. I don’t think we ever point a finger directly at them, but do we think they’ve had an impact? Sure.

What are the ideal demographics you were looking for with the Galaxy deal?

BM: It was more about the sport, the type of people in reach and how broad of a group of people that reach. It had less to do with male vs. female or 18 to 34. I think it had more to do with the global presence that the world of soccer has as well as the value we were able to get out of a jersey deal than it had to do with a particular demographic.

Have you considered becoming an MLS league-wide sponsor?

BM: Yeah, it’s been very interesting to get to the league and to look at your places in there. We’ve looked at the league a number of times.

How much do you follow the MLS? Is it something you keep in mind?

BM: We have a major relationship with a premier organization within the MLS. I wouldn’t be doing my job very well if I didn’t follow them. I certainly keep track of the team and the Galaxy in particular. It’s been very interesting to consume the rest of the MLS. We actually run a number of promotions that allow us to get to other MLS clubs and franchises, whether that’s buying tickets and doing things in their stadiums or just as the Galaxy travel and being exposed to the other operations.

Are any Herbalife executives big soccer fans or played at some point themselves?

BM: I don’t know about the playing side of things. But I would say they’re all fans. They’re all fans of soccer and international football and follow it pretty regularly, whether that’s because they were forced to because of our relationship or are true fans, I’ll leave that up to them.

Does Herbalife have an after-work soccer club or league for its staff?

BM: From a soccer perspective, we have a corporate league that a number of our employees are involved in.

Being in the area, how many Herbalife staff would you say attend Galaxy home matches on average?

BM: I would say it’s north of 2,000 employees if you talk about individual tickets … are attending Galaxy games over the course of the year. We’re fortunate that the Galaxy’s home field, the Home Depot Center down in Carson, California, is literally less than two miles away from one of our major offices down there where we have close to 1,000-1,500 employees. It’s really convenient and it makes a good way for our employee to connect with our team.

Is your President Des Walsh a soccer fan? Does he attend LA Galaxy matches?

BM: He is a soccer fan, he does go to games. I would say most of our senior management would be a fixture as it applies to the Galaxy relationship overall, yes.

How many Herbalife staffers were at MLS Cup 2011? Would you say most of the company knew that the Galaxy won?

BM: We had close to 300 employees [attended] MLS Cup, overall. When it comes to people that knew, I would say everybody knew. It was a really big deal for us and winning the MLS Cup was certainly a big place not only for our brand exposure, but just the road we’ve been on with the Galaxy for the last five years. So seeing it come to fruition and everything that went behind it was huge for us.

Right now the Galaxy, according to MLS limits, has the maximum of 3 Designated Players (player’s whose salary only counts partially towards the salary cap) with Beckham, Donovan & Keane. If the league decided to remove the cap and the Galaxy decided to hire a full squad of international stars like them, would your company consider paying more for that association to what would then be likely classified as a world-class team?

BM: Everything, when you look at how much you’re willing to pay for something, there are key drivers in that. If those players and the players that came over increased the presence of the Galaxy and the sport by that much, of course. No doubt about it. But it’s hard to say. It really depends on the type of players that they bring and the growth that it provides. I would say, look, the exposure is just bound to increase with the Galaxy in the MLS.

From a sponsor’s perspective, would you rather see the LA Galaxy go on international tours of Asia, Australia and other places overseas for pre-season training than the anonymity of playing minor league clubs in warm weather before the season kicks off?

BM: As a multi-national company, we have an interest in them going and playing games abroad. That would be my preference. On the same hand, our biggest interest is in the success of the Galaxy overall.

Are you familiar with this recent poll by ESPN that shows the growth of soccer popularity in the USA?

BM: No, I’m not.

What do you think the future holds for MLS and professional soccer in the USA?

BM: I think it’s hard to resist the fact that soccer in this country’s growing. It’s always been one of the top participatory sports at the lower age groups. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody in this country that didn’t grow up playing soccer. I can walk down any street these days and run into Barcelona jerseys, Real Madrid jerseys, Manchester United jerseys, Galaxy jerseys. It’s growing and the presence is growing and I think anybody’s going to have a tough time saying that it’s not. Soccer, being the world’s sport, it’s going to grow. It doesn’t have a choice.

I think the biggest challenge that the MLS has is the international soccer in this country. The amount of people following the Barcelona’s and Manchester United and Mexican league teams compared to MLS teams. I have no idea what that’s like. But I think that the growth of the MLS can just kind of grow with that. People want to support their local teams; people want to consume the game. Watching on TV is just not enough. So hopefully as soccer in general continues to grow the MLS continues to grow.

If all goes well in the coming years for both Herbalife and the LA Galaxy, do you envision renewing the deal?

BM: We just renewed it in the end of March and we signed on for 10 years. So we’re committed to the Galaxy, we’re committed to the MLS; we’re committed to soccer in this country. We’re proud of it and, like I said, we stand behind the LA Galaxy, the MLS and soccer.


UMass Amherst
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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.