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Beyond the surface

How adidas and Havas are creating more space for women in sports.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Five metres high, three metres deep, and 11,500 gallons of water. Last month, adidas unveiled the world’s first ever liquid billboard in Dubai, a phenomenal feat of engineering design and creativity. The pioneering campaign is the work of the Havas Village in the Middle East; with Havas Creative and Red Havas working together. The structure took a team of 32 people to build, working around the clock for three weeks to deliver. 

Yet, perhaps the bigger feat of this campaign is not one of engineering; but one of shifting behaviours and challenging deeply-held beliefs about women’s bodies, what they are for and how society feels about them.

The launch of adidas’ first Full-Cover Swimwear Collection is a reflection of its belief that sport belongs to all. A signal of a fundamental cultural shift; to ensure that all bodies have the performance wear they need to enjoy one of the most popular and mentally and physical sports in the world; swimming.

One size fits no one

The Full-Cover Swimwear Collection has put the technical skill of adidas into creating a range of products which don’t just tap into the market need for modest fashion; but into a human need to create products which don’t compromise or constrict the sporting experience. 

It's an investment which reflects the fact that in the modern market, one size fits no one. It's a truth the marketing industry is waking up to. From the still relevant This Girl Can campaign in the UK, to the aforementioned launch of adidas’ first full-cover swimwear collection in the Middle East; the universal truth that one of the primary barriers to women’s participation in sport is the fear of the judgement of others, holds true. 

The launch of adidas’ full-cover collection marks another watershed for the brand too, with it recognising the need to diversify both its products and its marketing communications. Because making space for women’s sports demands doing things differently.

When you start to give women a voice and represent them, it changes everything.

Justine Dib, Account Manager at Havas Middle East

Moving beyond the fear of judgement of others

A YouGov survey commissioned by adidas in 2021 revealed that only 12% of women are completely comfortable wearing a swimsuit at a public beach or pool. With body shame and a lack of privacy as the two main reasons women do not feel comfortable. 

Additionally, 59% of women aged 18-42 in the United Arab Emirates agree or strongly agree that the “media creates an unattainable body image for female swimmers”. Moreover, only one quarter of women surveyed rate the availability of modest and size-inclusive swimwear ranges as excellent. 

Sybille Baumann, Senior Product Manager for adidas Swimwear, explains: “At adidas we believe that nobody should be prevented from enjoying the benefits of being in and around the water. We are constantly looking at ways to diversify our product offering for all women and our Full-Cover Swimwear Collection is rooted in that mentality.”

The billboard is part of the new campaign to support the launch of the brand’s first Full-Cover Swimwear Collection. The Beyond the Surface campaign is designed with the fact that water accepts everyone unconditionally, and is fronted by Sudanese-British spoken word poet and sports inclusivity activist, Asma Elbandawi. 

Elbandawi will feature in the campaign alongside Lebanese, Dubai-based adidas ambassador and amputee athlete Dareen Barbar. The Beyond the Surface campaign, part of Watch Us Move - adidas’ broader initiative to create more space for women in sport.

Nagat Idris and Justine Dib, the team behind the campaign at Havas Middle East, believe it is groundbreaking for the region. Dib explains: “The depiction of women in advertising is definitely changing. When you start to give women a voice and represent them, it changes everything.”

Changing the game

It is a change that Dib believes is core to the adidas brand. “When women see themselves represented in the media it is always a good thing. It makes you understand that you are not alone and you are not the only one,” she explains. 

For Idris, the campaign and range mark an important cultural shift. She explains: “The swimwear has a range of designs and you can look cool and feel confident and you don’t need to limit yourself.”

Dib adds that the flexible design of the new range addresses the fact that women who wear the hijab have never had the opportunity to feel comfortable swimming, simply because sports products weren’t representing them. “It is important for the brand to enable these women to be part of something and feel free.”

Idris believes there is an opportunity for brands. “Women are getting more attention for their sporting skills. Women with confidence who don’t want to compromise on their cultural values. These groups want to purchase products, they want to feel comfortable. Brands need to reach out and relate to all kinds of women; not just body types, but culturally too.”

Inclusive by design

In the midst of images of unattainable perfection, Dib believes there is a genuine opportunity for brands to include everyone.” An approach to inclusion which she believes should span both product design and creative work alike. 

Idris adds that there is also a key role for brands to play in encouragement. An idea that reflects the fact that after decades of shaming women for not being ‘Beach Body Ready’ brands now have an opportunity - creatively and commercially - to turn the tide. 

In the Middle East, Idris points to the fact that women are increasingly being encouraged to embrace sport as part of their daily lives. She explains: “The Saudi 2030 vision in the region is a movement to ensure we are proud of women in sport.”

It's a pride that the duo also take in the creative work they have brought into the world; work which has a key role in shifting culture. As Dib explains: “You rarely see an advert which speaks to every woman. Working on the project and being part of this cause is a moment to be proud of.”

“To see such a big brand thinking about the sport and bringing more encouragement and confidence in [how you feel] about your body is incredible,” adds Idris. She continues: “Now brands are showing you don’t need to be ashamed, ladies are doing great things. If it touched your heart I am so grateful.”

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