Uefa marketing boss on taking inspiration from This Girl Can to change 'uncool' image of women's football

Uefa has made a record investment into marketing women’s football, believing broadcasters and sponsors have reached a point where they are ready to get behind it and that, in time, there will be commercial gains to be enjoyed.

European football's governing body admits that it’s perhaps been slow to act. Only this year did it make a commitment to double participation in women’s football as well as double the number of fans and deliver consistent success on the world stage by 2020.

“It’s more than time for Uefa to dive deeply into women’s football,” said Peter Willems, head of marketing activities and sponsorship at Uefa. “The time is right – there is a movement for gender equality. Although we didn’t want to take advantage of that wave, we’ll surf on it.”

The first concerted effort to market the game to women is centred on encouraging young girls to play. Quite simply, “our research shows that when you participate at a young age you’ll participate a bit more [when you’re older]; as a player, as a volunteer but also buying more merchandise or paying money for a BT subscription," Willems explained.

Lessons from ‘This Girl Can’

A pan-European creative campaign dubbed Together #WePlayStrong will roll out today (31 May) in an effort to change what the Uefa marketer described as football’s “uncool” image among young girls.

It sets out to tackle misperceptions about the women’s game head on, featuring a diverse range of girls from across Europe each demonstrating the confidence that comes from playing football.

Set to a punchy song, the advert – which will run during the Champions League final and the Women’s Champions League final – will likely draw comparisons to ‘This Girl Can’.

Indeed, the creative agency behind Sport England’s highly praised push to get more women exercising also worked with Uefa on the #WePlayStrong idea.

Sharon Jiggins, managing director at FCB Inferno, told The Drum that while inspiration was taken from ‘This Girl Can’ and the use of real women, sweating and playing sport, the idea for this campaign was very much rooted in showing girls coming together to play and the confidence that comes with it.

“Our creative approach is to challenge current prejudices of the game by showing how cool girls’ football really is,” Jiggins said. “Featuring a cast of girls from grass roots level to Sporting Lisbon’s professional team, we wanted to showcase brilliant skills and the sense of togetherness girls get from the game on and off the pitch.”

Following the TV run, a social media campaign will continue the activity throughout the rest of the year. The brand is using platforms “where girls go” such as Instagram and Snapchat but is also testing the likes of Giphy, where a series of gifs (like a woman kicking a ball into a basketball hoop) have been created for girls to download and share.

It will also rely heavily on influencers in music, fashion and film (rather than just sport) who will act as ambassadors for women’s football.

Beyond advertising

To realise its ambition of doubling the participants and viewers of women’s football, Uefa has had to invest “considerably”.

“We always said that we were either going to do it properly or not at all and we needed to give it a marketing approach like the way Heineken does marketing," Willems said. "We had to think of [women’s football] like a product and how to develop it and grow it."

But more important than the budget to launch a campaign of this scale was the resource that would underpin it. For the first time, it has hired a full team just to focus on marketing around the women’s game, including Kayleigh Grieve from Dog Digital who recently joined as marketing manager.

“Compared to men’s football, it’s a drip; but compared to what we had before, it’s massive," Willems added.

Despite such investment, delivering ROI is not an immediate priority. However, in the long run Uefa wants commercial returns and Epstein said that interest from broadcasters and sponsors into women’s football so far is compelling.

Last year, Channel 4 outbid the BBC for broadcast rights for the Uefa Women’s Euro 2017 tournament this summer while brands such as SSE and Avon have embraced the new sponsorship opportunities.

For that reason, for the first time in Uefa's history, women’s football assets will be sold as a separate package.

“In the past, the Women’s Champions League was packaged with Champions League, and the Women’s Euro league with Euros. It was almost like a tax [on sponsors and broadcasters]. ‘If you want Champions League you have to take the Women’s’ but then sponsors didn’t do anything with it,” Willems admitted.

While selling has “been delayed a bit” for reasons he declined to share, it is beginning to “seed” the proposition and is getting interest from companies and sponsors

“In six months, we might fail completely but today talking to the market I feel there is something and we will sell out and reach financial targets. But I might be wrong.”

The final piece in the puzzle for this strategy's success is working closely with each of the 55 football federations across Europe, “because if we don’t this will be forgotten.”

Each of the national associations will be given a guide on how to localise the wider marketing push through the extensive library of photography and content that’s been made available and take part in workshops on how to drive participation among young women within their divisions.

For some countries, like Norway, this will require little hand-holding but in Eastern Europe where the perception of women’s football is “less developed” they will need more of a steer on how to engage local schools, for example.

“We’ll then follow up every three months for the next five years, and if they don’t deliver we’ll ask why. We have to be strict because we put a lot of resource behind this and if the federations don’t do anything it’s a waste of money,” Willems said.

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