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Has Sport England’s 'This Girl Can' campaign played as big a role in women’s sport as the industry thinks?

This Girl Can

Sport England’s much celebrated ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has returned and the acclaim the original received is richly deserved in its encouragement of more women to take up exercise. However, its success stands atop the foundations of sports brands campaigns which came before it.

The latest iteration of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign was launched earlier this week (31 January) and looks to deliver, in its own words, ‘a kick right in the stereotypes’. Only the print ads have been revealed so far - the film isn't expected until later this month - but much like the original it evokes the power of femvertising to inspire women of all ages to participate in physical activity.

When the film launched in 2015 to the thumping tune of Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’, Sport England was widely lauded for changing attitude to exercise across the country. In a world where neon billboards are adorned with toned abs and question whether women are ‘beach body ready’, Sport England’s ‘I jiggle therefore I am’ ethos was a breath of fresh air.

According to its own figures, some 2.8 million women in the UK were engaging in more active lifestyles as a direct result of the campaign.

Lisa Parfitt, managing director of sports and entertainment agency Synergy says that the numbers Sport England achieved speak for themselves and it successfully liberated women from the fear of their own bodies via creative that is understanding without being “preaching or patronising.”

Sport England’s ability to celebrate women partaking in sport “demonstrates an acute understanding of women that some brands don’t bother with," she adds.

Indeed, a recent study from Synergy’s parent group Engine found that 76% of women don’t believe advertisers are representing modern women, with even less agreeing that sports brands were doing a good job of representing them at 44% - a figure on par with household cleaning brands, which is admittedly a damming comparison.

But while these figures are shocking, sports brands have and are playing a big part in making sports more accessible to women and their role alongside 'This Girl Can' in helping some of those 2.8 million women embrace exercise shouldn't be overlooked.

For instance, Nike’s ambition to turn its women’s sportswear arm into an $11bn business by 2020 speaks to the investment it has put into scrapping gender stereotypes. Last year, the company increased its marketing spend, which it said largely went into female centric marketing such as its ‘Better for It Campaign’.

These investments have been supported by programmes such as its Nike+ Training Club, which saw more than half a million women worldwide participating, including in regions where women wouldn’t typically exercise or wear athletic clothing.

Similarly, Under Armour has a big marketing push to growing women’s sport. In 2014, Under Armour partnered model Gisele Bündchen, as well as an athlete, ballerina Misty Copeland for its ‘I Will What I Want’ activity. Its message connected with women around the world and drove a 28% increase in women’s sales and a 4% increase in traffic to the Under Armour site.

Meanwhile, Adidas was investing in encouraging women to get into sport in 2013 with its ‘All in for #MyGirls’ campaign, which attempted to encourage girls to come together through sport and fitness in general.

But despite this, when 'This Girl Can' came along it did highlight the failure of sports marketing as a whole to truly reflect the women buying their products.

Jim Dowling, managing director at HSE Cake, said the industry habitually defaults to using superstar athletes to inspire people to do more physical activity and buy product.

"'This Girl Can' helped land the message to the rest of the industry that many women can be intimidated by physical perfection rather than inspired by it,” says Dowling.

What is clear is that the two strands of marketing play different roles in the same race and will always have to go hand-in-hand if a real overhaul in the culture around gender and sport is to shift.

“Not one brand campaign, media drive or government initiative will provide the single answer to encourage girls and women to participate more in sport,” added Colin Banks, head of sponsorship at SSE- the title sponsor for the Women’s FA Cup.

While Sport England’s campaign has had a big impact and the follow up shows all the signs of achieving the same results, that sports brands and sponsors engage consumers on a daily basis can help get the message across louder and clearer.

'This Girl Can' has certainly played its part and stirred emotion with the British public but it needs to continue to work in conjunction with sports bodies to make sure the additional interest can be signposted and accommodated, only then will the true result be achieved," concluded Banks.

By Rebecca Stewart and Tony Connelly

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