Few brand icons have had as much impact on the products they peddle as Gary Lineker. Simon Mowbray interrupts this national hero’s busy schedule to talk about his life as one of the UK’s most successful brand ambassadors

He’s had time to get to grips with it. Lineker initially believed a single starring role in a ‘Can you resist Walkers crips?’ ad in the mid-90s would be a one-off.

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to playing a shark in his next ad and would like star alongside Angelina Jolie at some stage. “In my dreams,” he jokes.

Hello Gary”, comes the chorus of excited voices from Leicester City Football Club’s reception workers as the club’s former playing idol walks through the door in a neat grey suit, short-sleeved white shirt, designer shades and jacket posily slung over one shoulder.

This isn’t just the run-of-the-mill welcome of star-struck middle-aged ladies, either. They are genuinely pleased to see him. It’s hardly surprising. After all, thanks to Lineker’s intervention last year when he set up a business consortium to take over the debt-ridden club, they still have jobs and a team of which to be proud following its return to the Premiership.

Now let’s not get too saccharine about this, but you do begin to get the feeling that this man has been gifted with a bit of the Midas touch. Never sent off the field of play or even yellow-carded in almost 20 years as a pro, he scored 48 goals in 80 games for England, won a European Cup winners medal with Spanish giants Barcelona, was made an OBE in 1992 and has gone on to become arguably the highest profile TV sports presenter in Britain today. Oh, and in 10 years as brand ambassador for Walkers, he has also helped turn it into one of Britain’s most successful fmcg brands, virtually squashing all the opposition in the process.

By the time I finally get to sit down with Leicester’s favourite son at the plush new Walkers Stadium, the 42-year-old has pumped the flesh with dozens of club officials and already been probed for his insights into the new football season by reporters from Leicester’s local newpaper and a national soccer magazine.

Turning his thoughts to Walkers, Lineker is clearly only too aware of the snack giant’s position in the great scheme of things. For example, he understands that sparing the company any embarrassment that a careless or unguarded comment may cause is part of the deal. It’s a measure of how implicitly he is trusted that the only PR flunky to be seen in the conference suite where our meeting takes place is hovering in the background rather than sitting at the table butting in every two seconds. He certainly appears more commercially aware than your average celebrity and in 10 years with Walkers has had time to come to understand the business he has served so well.

He claims to have visited each of Walkers’ UK production sites “at least twice” and counts a number of key Walkers employees, including former Walkers president Martin Glenn (now president of parent company PepsiCo UK) among his friends. “I pretty much know everyone involved with the business,” says Lineker.

However, he also knows his long-term association with the brand would not have survived on friendship or fondness alone. “I know I wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t working. But fortunately for everyone concerned, it still is. I always look at the figures and take a keen interest in how the whole thing works.”

Ten years later and he’s starred in more than two dozen ads (he’s contracted to make five a year and 25 public appearances), in which he’s done more cross-dressing than your average transvestite, starred in a spoof of Austin Powers and even done battle with England’s new national team darling Michael Owen.

The length of the association has also brought him his fair share of criticism for pushing a product which is hardly on any healthy eating list. “When I was first approached to do the ads, I worked out what the product was and whether I felt I could support it.

“The fact that it was a local brand in the city where I grew up was also important to me.

“We have never said people should eat crisps all the time. The main point people are missing is that today’s health problems are nothing to do with snacks like crisps. The issue is that many people are simply not exercising. We have to fight to get our kids away from the television or their video games, and that is down to parents. A packet of crisps isn’t going to do them any harm.”

It’s clearly a point he takes home with him, admitting that his four sons (George, Harry, Tobias and Angus) would eat crisps (Walkers of course!) “all the time” if he let them. “Consumers are treated like idiots sometimes and it’s wrong. As long as they are given the relevant information then they are more than capable of making their own decisions.”

As for the future, Lineker says he will carry on being Walkers’ brand ambassador for “as long as they want me” or for “as long as I still enjoy it”.

Unfortunately, my all-too-brief time slot with him is over as he also has a list of radio and TV interviews to do, but he’s bearing it with extremely good humour, probably because it’s just been announced that BBC’s Match of the Day, the show he fronted until ITV won the rights to show Premiership highlights, will be back in business next year after outbidding its rival for the 2004-2005 rights.

On top of that, Lineker’s return to Leicester has helped secure that night’s pre-season friendly against Barcelona, something which he admits in the day’s match programme notes is something he thought he would never see.

Hopefully, his good humour managed to endure despite Leicester’s 1-0 defeat.
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