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The Drum Digital Transformation Festival launch

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Gordon Young
Editor-in-chief at The Drum

Women in sports: Are brands keeping up?

Women in sports: Was this year's Fifa Women's Cup the game changer?

Gender equality in advertising is the holy grail. Same for the sporting industries, where – perhaps apart from in tennis– female sports stars haven’t achieved the same level of notoriety as their male counterparts. Or at least, that seemed to be the case until this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup.

While 2019 may have been the year that the world cast an eye on women in sports, marketers and researchers have realised that this isn’t a one-off trend.

For instance, a recent report from IBM – Change to win: achieving competitive advantage in the sports industry – reveals some 150 million people watched the Uefa Women’s Euro 2017 and 51,211 people attended the finale of the Mexican 16-team Liga MX Femenil the same year, which marked a record for women’s football.

When women’s football just became football

Many marketers anticipate a growing level of intrigue in women’s sport following the Women’s World Cup (WWC). “What has changed is women,” says BBD Perfect Storm’s managing director New Macho, Fernando Desouches. “And brand communications are reflecting and reinforcing this change.”

Campaigns such as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ in 2005, followed by Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ in 2014 and Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ of 2015 have paved the way for female empowerment. “Women now feel more comfortable and attracted to sports that were previously more exclusively available to men, like football or rugby,” adds Desouches. “This is definitely not a one-off. It’s part of a social evolution, and it’s very good for brands and society at large.”

Nationwide’s director of campaigns and public policy, Tanya Joseph – also the architect of ‘This Girl Can’ – agrees that the success of these campaigns has only served to increase public attention when it comes to championing women’s sport. Looking back on the iconic campaign she worked on, Joseph has personally seen the impact that ‘This Girl Can’ had on the industry.

“It changed the way we sell sport to women, the way women are portrayed in sports advertising, and the way women think about sport,” she says. It promped subsequent campaigns to mimic the trailblazing approach. Just think of Bodyform’s ‘Blood’ campaign, which pioneered the use of red blood on-screen, defying the tradition of using blue liquid to represent menstrual blood.

The WWC became a historical moment in advertising. “It helped to normalise [gender roles],” according to James Kirkham, chief business officer at Copa90. “It was when women’s football just became football.”

How brands are rethinking their approach

Rather than separate sports because of gender, the tournament brought women up to the same level playing field as their male counterparts. For Kirkham, it caused “a seismic shift in interest, spawning countless shows, new programming and media documentation, and exactly the right positive noise, too. The WWC wasn’t the only element, but it has been an important cultural moment for changing attitudes around women’s sport.”

And brands are seeing women’s sport as equally important as men’s, according to Marzena Bogdanowicz, head of marketing and commercial at the FA’s Women’s Football division.

There’s no doubt that gender stereotypes continue to exist in the advertising industry, despite efforts and regulations from organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority, yet the sporting sector has been somewhat neglected.

“Beauty standards for women have been redefined and are now becoming more relaxed,” says Desouches. “But other less visible stereotypes, like the narrow way brands define the notion of success for men, have not yet been addressed properly. Brands that solely address men are more at risk of becoming obsolete than those also targeting women because they’ve had to actively adjust their message.”

Looking back on the WWC, Bogdanowicz remembers the work the FA put in, revealing just how much planning it took to get it right: “From the media, to the rights holders, to the brands that support, the FA has spent time with its commercial partners, media and broadcasters to align positioning and discuss how, as a collective, we can help change attitudes.”

Which is why, she believes, the interest in women’s sport and marketing women in sport won’t waver, especially with the Lionesses’ match against Germany in November followed by the 2021 Uefa Women’s Euro.

There are many more opportunities for brands to take advantage of this new space – with brands like Nike having already created a dedicated women’s kit, Lucozade creating a first-ever footballers (male or female) on-product, and Budweiser promoting women on their multi-packs – all actively embracing the challenge and participating in these social discussions.

But it requires a team effort. “Sports and brands need to work really hard together to entrench the change,” says Joseph.

This boy can

“But using authentic images [of sports] is a massive challenge to lots of brands,” she adds. “Playing sport and being active involves sweat, mud, blood and grimacing, things which most brands shy away from.”

Showcasing the reality of women playing sports, rather than glamourising or glossing over it, has the power to push society into new terrain. It begins a discourse that is different from the way in which men are represented in sport, where often the conversation centres around hyper-competition – the reason why many male sports stars still don’t reveal their sexualities for fear that it could have repercussions on their career progression. “Undoubtedly right now there’s uncertainty about masculinity and how to present it,” explains Kirkham. “People do not want to create the wrong types of communication in this climate.”

But some marketers – like Bogdanowicz – believe that the shift in focus, moving the limelight away from male sports stars to females, has impacted the way the public view masculinity. “There’ve been some cases where the element of masculinity has softened, as a result, in its portrayal,” she says. Although, of course, progress is slow and difficult to measure. For marketers like Joseph it’s not the issue with stereotyping that’s the problem, but the way in which brands are carelessly using these ideals. “Stereotyping is a helpful way of conveying messages swiftly, but I do have a problem with harmful gender stereotypes – ones that tell us ‘real girls’ don’t play sports like rugby or that makeup and sport don’t go together.”

As public interest in women’s sport continues, brands will increasingly recognise the traction they can gain from tapping into these audiences, not to mention possibly revolutionising the way men are perceived in this field. Desouches expects businesses to invest further in brands that are targeting women through sports, not just sports brands – but suggests that rather than mimic male ads, they need to find a unique way in which to engage these newfound consumers. He predicts that “genderless communications in sports marketing” could be something to look out for.

As Joseph concludes: “There is potential for a really bright future for sports marketing. It just needs brands to want to build long-term relationships with individuals/teams/sports to understand their audiences and what they are looking for.

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