Marketer of the year Tanya Joseph on the future of ‘This Girl Can’ and Sport England’s strategy for 2016

Tanya Joseph
Photographer: Rehan Jamil

The UK’s marketing success story of 2015 was Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, which aims to make women of all ages and abilities more active. It won numerous awards at Cannes Lions 2015, including the much-trumpeted inaugural Glass Lion, celebrating advertising that promotes gender equality. The campaign, created with agency FCB Inferno, persuaded 1.6 million women to start exercising, while 2.8 million who are aware of the campaign say they have become more active as a result, according to independent research released by Sport England last week.

With that in mind, it is difficult to believe that the publicly-funded body has not yet been given the go-ahead by government to spend more money on TV advertising, which must be frustrating as January would have been a prime time to get people to make fitness related resolutions. Instead, the next phase of This Girl Can will focus predominantly on digital channels.

This is not a concern for Tanya Joseph, Sport England’s director of business partnerships and winner of the Masters of Marketing’s marketer of the year award last November. She claims success in 2015 was down to being “deliberately disruptive” and that the organisation did not want to add to the ‘new year, new you’ noise post Christmas meaning it needed a different approach for 2016.

“We are delighted the campaign has had such a great start but recognise that we have a long way to go,” says Joseph, who points out that the gender gap is still very pronounced considering 1.73 million more men participate in sport than women.

In addition to planned social media activity, Sport England has developed a new range of clothing with Marks & Spencer, and will be encouraging women to get active for good causes through its partnership with Sport Relief, using new films and mantras to engage its growing online community.

Given the campaign has been talked about in more than 110 countries, and the ads have been watched 37 million times on YouTube and Facebook, digital channels are critical to its future momentum.

In addition, 540,000 women and girls have joined the This Girl Can social media community and the campaign has been mentioned on social media every day since it launched, with a total of 660,000 tweets using the hashtag #ThisGirlCan.

Sport England’s ‘This Girl can’ was the UK’s most awarded campaign at Cannes Lions

Behaving as a brand

The creative concept for This Girl Can was born from the insight that 75% of women would like to exercise more but do not because of fear of judgement, which prompted a shift in Sport  England’s communication strategy.

“We need to focus more on what the consumer wants rather than saying, ‘this is what we do’,” says Joseph. “To have a bit of courage, to work with different partners, and work differently, has been a big change and in government they have welcomed that approach.”

Just like a private-sector brand, Sport England has to justify every penny it spends on marketing. The only major difference is that while many marketers seek the approval of shareholders and the board, Sport England is spending taxpayers’ money, so it has to seek the approval of government.

Despite its Cannes Lions successes, Joseph says award wins are “less important” to government, so acclaim of this kind does not affect how much money the organisation gets. But it has helped ministers and civil servants “take the campaign seriously”.

“We work in a government agency, so it’s [about] making the case with colleagues and government that this is an investment worth making, but you have to do that for everything that you do,” explains Joseph.

“These are public funds and we need to be able to justify any spend that we make. Whether  it’s investing in This Girl Can or in a swimming programme, we have to be able to justify that [it] is going to get a return on investment and that taxpayers and lottery players will think [it is a good use of their money].”

Around 75% of funds for Sport England come through the National Lottery, so Joseph knows what her budget is for the next three to four years and can plan accordingly; vital for the type of behaviour-changing campaigns that Sport England implements.

Like any other brand, the organisation recognises the need for marketing to achieve this, but that was not always the case. When Joseph first joined in January 2012, the organisation did not have a marketing function.

She says: “It’s not sufficient to just have quality facilities or great programmes; you have to let people know they are there. [You also have to ensure they know] they’re welcome, that they’ll have a great experience, and that we care about them enough that we want them to come back.”

Sport England’s growing remit

This Girl Can achieved even more than Joseph predicted and she believes some of the techniques used in the campaign to change behaviour can be transferred when the organisation’s remit expands, as proposed in a report released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last December.

It states that funds should be distributed “to focus on those people who tend not to take part in sport, including women and girls, disabled people, those in lower socio-economic groups and older people”.

To encourage active behaviour from an earlier age, DCMS has suggested the organisation lowers the age it begins communicating with young people from 14 to five.

The report states: “A person’s attitude towards sport is often shaped by their experience – or lack of experience – as a child, and many people drop out of sport before they reach the age of 14. Getting Sport England involved earlier will help to combat this.”

Sport England will be working with partners in sport and retail, as well as the Department for Education and Public Health England, to ensure children have “a good experience and develop good physical literacy”.

However, Joseph says This Girl Can will remain focused on its original goal of getting women and girls more involved in sport, so the message will not become “everyone can”, but the organisation will use similar behaviour change techniques and marketing to engage other groups and “make sport a practical choice for them”.

Joseph adds: “This Girl Can has demonstrated early on that by using these techniques you can, through a focus on the consumer, get people to start taking the kind of action you want them to take, raise the awareness of the issue and change attitudes.”

The organisation’s key performance indicators will change as a result of the new strategy and the DCMS has asked Sport England to ensure that any work incorporates the five values of individual, social, mental, physical and economic wellbeing.

However, it is clear that Sport England’s focus on the kind of insight that spawned This Girl Can will not change. Joseph says she has worked in other sectors where a campaign has veered off course, which can be detrimental to behaviour change activity.

“A campaign starts off with good intentions [but then] someone gets a ‘good idea’, you move away from the [original] insight and all of a sudden you are doing something that is completely different,” she explains. “We can all think of campaigns like that; [it might be] a brilliant ad but how will it actually get people to buy that product?”

Authentic communication

The need to stay on message and be honest is something Joseph has championed throughout her career.

Starting as a journalist, Joseph moved to government as a press secretary in the late 1990s, initially for the office of the lord chancellor and then for prime minister Tony Blair, and from there to senior roles at PR and public affairs agency Grayling. As the head of her own consultancy, Tanya Joseph Consulting, she subsequently provided counsel and practical advice to clients including Tesco, Mars, Heinz, the Royal Mint and De Beers.

The experiences taught her that communication requires authenticity and honesty because if “people can’t trust you, then you might as well pack up and go home”.

Joseph says she is proud to be able to do “something that has a personal resonance”. This Girl Can is all the more pertinent considering her role as vice-chair of Fawcett – an organisation that supports gender equality – as it mirrors the sentiment that “women should feel comfortable about who they are and what they do”, she says. “For me, it’s one of the joys of working on the campaign.”

Diversity and equality are also promoted internally at Sport England. Joseph says her team is made up of people from different backgrounds and with different attitudes so that regardless of their role, people are allowed to say ‘I don’t think that will work’, which has created “openness”.

“What you tend to get when it’s a homogeneous team in terms of everyone coming from the same place or background, is that everyone thinks the same [way],” suggests Joseph. She believes it is critical that people are “willing to listen to other people’s points of view”.

She adds: “That means that we do get people who say ‘why are we doing this?’ and the only thing you are not allowed to say is ‘because we always do it’.”

It has been a phenomenal year for This Girl Can, but Joseph admits this is just the beginning. As the campaign enters its second year, the pace of change must continue, but as with any movement that aims to fundamentally shift attitudes and behaviour, it will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Q&A Tanya Joseph

Q: What are your main responsibilities at Sport England?

My job title as director of business partnerships is a bit impenetrable, but I am responsible for the relationships with the organisations and people for whom grass roots sport is not a primary purpose. We talk to the public, journalists, politicians and brands; we’re responsible for our own channels; I’m responsible for This Girl Can.

Q: As vice-chair of diversity organisation Fawcett, what have you learned from that role that you can bring  to Sport England?

Fawcett supports gender equality. This Girl Can is trying to do that within sport and physical activity. We have tried to make people feel positive about doing something. [It would be good] if we could get more brands thinking like this. Whether it’s selling or doing anything, [it’s important] to be authentic and honest and not make women feel bad.

Q: You have held various communications roles during your career. What have  you learned over the years that still rings true today?

Always be honest. In our business all we have is our integrity. [I’d also say] grab every opportunity to learn. That doesn’t mean formal learning [necessarily]. I have learned amazing things from people I’ve worked with in the past just because I have observed them.

Q: What excites you the most about the future of marketing and communications?

In the end, it’s always about how good your message is. The channels are changing so you need to be smart and still think about the audience and the message.

I don’t even know what the platforms are going to be in two years’ time, let alone in four years. That is quite scary but it’s amazing and exciting because things are changing all the time.Our ability, what we are able to do, and the way we are able to deliver our message, is going to change and we don’t even know how yet.

Masters of marketing submit entry

Tanya Joseph won ‘Marketer of the Year’ at the 2015 Masters of Marketing Awards. Make sure you submit your entry for this year’s awards here.


Knowledge Bank


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