Sweetgreen teams up with tennis star Naomi Osaka for post-pandemic rally
Sweetgreen has signed tennis star Naomi Osaka as its first national athlete ambassador and its newest and youngest investor, in moves that show how the salad-centric chain is trying to bounce back after a challenging year.
As part of the deal, Osaka’s go-to order is being added to Sweetgreen’s app. The Naomi Osaka Bowl—warm quinoa, baby spinach, cilantro, tomato, tortilla chips, raw carrots, goat cheese, blackened chicken, lime-cilantro jalapeno vinaigrette, avocado, and hot sauce—will be available starting May 20.
Osaka is also appearing in ads. The campaign debuts as Sweetgreen is eager for a rebound. The shift to working from home pressured many of its locations near downtown offices, which were suddenly nearly empty at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve always wanted to work with an athlete,” says Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer.
The way Ru sees it, Osaka can help the chain tell a bigger story around the connection between food and fitness. Osaka was a longtime customer, and Ru got connected to her manager through a mutual friend.
“I’m proud to join forces with sweetgreen to change the way the world thinks of traditional fast-food sponsorships. As an athlete, what I put into my body directly correlates to how I perform and eating delicious, healthy foods fuels my daily routine,” Osaka said in a statement.
The deal comes days after Osaka announced a partnership with Frankie’s Bikinis on a swimwear line. The 23-year-old Japanese winner of four Grand Slams also has a line with Nike and is an ambassador for brands including Louis Vuitton. Last month, Osaka announced her plan to launch her own skincare line, Kinlò. The name honors her bicultural heritage, with “kin” meaning gold in Japanese, and “lò” meaning gold in Haitian Creole.
Sweetgreen's marketing featuring Osaka includes print ads, as well as six-second, 15-second and 30-second videos that have not yet been released. Sweetgreen, which hired former Collins creative director Thomas Wilder as its executive creative director in 2020, does most of its work in-house.
The Naomi Osaka bowl launches during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. On May 26, 100% of sales of the Naomi Osaka bowl, up to $10,000, will be donated to support AAPI-led organizations working on increasing food access.
With many of its restaurants in downtown locations, Sweetgreen felt the pressure of the move to work-from-home life. “The majority of our restaurants doing well were the ones in the suburbs,” says Ru.
While Ru declined to share sales data, “business has definitely been much better over the last few months,” he says. The chain responded to changing dining habits during the pandemic by bringing out heartier dinner plates. And it launched a crispy chicken salad in January, a way for it to play into the continued popularity of fried chicken sandwiches at fast-food chains, with a healthier twist.
And while Sweetgreen has been emphasizing ordering via its app for pickup and delivery, Ru sees a future in having areas for people to eat at the restaurants.
“Food is still a social experience,” he says.
Sweetgreen opened more than a dozen locations in 2020. It now has more than 120 restaurants and aims to end the year with about 140 of them. It has expanded into markets including Colorado, Florida and Texas, and plans to open in Atlanta this year.
The partnership with Osaka comes after Sweetgreen in January teamed up with influencers, including gamer Valkyrae, to promote their takes on its crispy chicken salad.
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