England’s 1-0 loss to Spain in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday (20 August) was a heartbreaking moment for English football fans.
However, the buzz and excitement that surrounded the tournament highlights just how far women’s football has come since the last tournament in 2019, and not just in terms of how far the Lionesses progressed.
The tournament is a “marquee moment” every four years to take “women’s sport to the next level,” Laura Weston, trustee of the Women’s Sport Trust, tells Marketing Week. “A lot of it has to do with visibility and audience, and proving there is an audience, but it’s more than that – it proves what women’s professional sport can look like and the impact it can have.”
The coverage of the World Cup final was watched by a peak audience of 14.8 million across the BBC and ITV. But, as Weston says, growth in the game isn’t just tied to how many people watch it.
“Every year, we see incremental growth, but this year, it felt different because people were properly analysing what was happening,” she says on how people engaged with the tournament.
‘There’s real excitement’: How are brands getting ready for the Women’s World Cup?There’s still a long way to go in terms of sponsorship and brand involvement within the game, but Weston notes this year’s tournament is the first time she’d seen people “debating” the creative from brands.
One ad that sparked conversation was Orange’s viral ‘Les Bleues’, which presented audiences with almost a minute of highlights from the male French national team, before revealing via CGI the players were actually from the women’s team. The ad aimed to challenge stereotypes and how female footballers are perceived, to a mixed reaction.
But while Orange’s effort grabbed headlines, there’s perhaps been a notable lack of strong brand activations, suggests Weston, who notes it’s hard to “name five brilliant brand activations” from the World Cup.
Last week, effectiveness platform System1 revealed that the Women’s World Cup outpaced the men’s tournament for ad appeal, meaning ads, such as ITV’s ‘The Pride has Arrived’ and Adidas’s ‘Play Until They Can’t Look Away’ performed better overall than the average for the men’s tournament.
“For the women’s tournament, many advertisers are leveraging famed athletes and celebrities, plus right-brained elements like melodic music, humour and distinctive assets that capture consumers’ broad-beam attention and drive long-term market share growth,” says Jon Evans, chief customer officer at System1.
How brands marked the final
Whether it’s Burger King rebranding as ‘Burger Queen’ for the occasion, or Breast Cancer Now launching a print campaign, ‘A Bigger Win’, to encourage people to check their breasts, brands certainly took a range of approaches to mark the final itself.
Across the tournament, Sports Direct carried out its ‘Wake Up to the Future of Football’ campaign to encourage fans to see the female game as the future of the sport. As Beckie Stanion, chief marketing officer at Frasers Group, tells Marketing Week: “The male game is saturated, and true football fans should support both the men’s and the women’s teams.”
“Giving a stage to the women’s game is something that drives me day-in, day-out. Sports Direct isn’t content with just sitting on the sidelines. We are here to make an impact,” she adds.
To move the dial further, Sports Direct is releasing its ‘Equal View’ campaign this week, which aims to drive better representation of female football fans.
“We found that when you search for ‘football fans’ online the results disproportionately show men or a very tokenistic view of women in football, and we wanted to change that,” she says. “You can’t be what you can’t see, and so it’s important to us that we play a part in shaping a more inclusive, aspirational future for our customers.”
In terms of engagement, in the past two weeks, 17.4m devices engaged with the World Cup, according to insight from Quantcast which tracks engagement. There was also a 200% increase in England’s joint-top scorer Lauren Hemp in this period, as well as a 50% increase in interest in the Spanish team.
Weston wonders if England won the final, whether the country would’ve deemed women’s football to be “completed”.
We don’t know what the impact would’ve been had the Lionesses won, of course, but Weston believes there is a lot more for brands and agencies to improve on in how they represent the sport, and women’s sport more broadly.
“I don’t think people get it,” she says about the creatives and brand leads coming up with the assets. This, she says, is because strong insight “doesn’t exist”. She continues: “Every good creative piece of work that I’ve ever worked on starts with an amazing piece of insight. But if people don’t understand what women’s football is, and how it should be perceived, they tend to see the stereotype and go for the most obvious thing.”
The obvious thing in question is “empowerment”, she says. Brands, in the main, are still presenting stories of how players have “overcome adversity” to be where they are now, rather than focusing on the sport and the passion that comes with it.
If people don’t understand what women’s football is, and how it should be perceived, they tend to see the stereotype and go for the most obvious thing
Laura Weston, Women’s Sport Trust
What will be the takeaway from the tournament? “It’s about the positioning of women’s football,” she says, “Who are the fans? What does it look like? What does good creative look like?”
The Women’s Sport Trust has carried out extensive research into what fans want from brands and the sport, and claim they want to see skills and how players “get to be that good,” says Weston.
Brands are yet to understand the “sporting side, the performance side” of women’s football. “I think that’s what women’s football fans want to see more of,” she adds.
The next major tournament, the Euros, is two years away. It’s now up to the clubs and leagues to get behind the women’s game, says Weston, who notes Arsenal is one club that is doing well in supporting to the women’s game. So, too, is Chelsea, which has appointed the first ever commercial director purely focused on the women’s team.
“That’s a big moment,” she adds. “What we need is people in post, whose only job is to think about women’s football.”