The Women’s World Cup can unlock activism opportunities for brands

The tournament’s engaged audience and untapped potential makes it an exciting prospect

Tim Jotischky

Divisional Managing Director of Reputation The PHA Group


“Where are all the Women’s World Cup campaigns?” read a recent headline in PR Week. After all the excitement surrounding the triumph of the England Lionesses at last summer’s Euros, with viewing figures for the final peaking at 17.4million, it seems strange there has not been more noise in the run-up to the tournament.

A broadcast deal for the FIFA Women’s World Cup was only agreed in June, averting the prospect of a TV blackout. The opening offer for the combined BBC and ITV bid was reported to be around 9 million euros, about 8% of what was paid for the men’s tournament in Qatar last year. If that sounds modest, in Italy the opening offer was said to be a derisory 300,000 euros.

The tournament’s location in Australia and New Zealand does not help and there have been plenty of sporting distractions in the lead-up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, including a spellbinding Ashes series and Wimbledon.

Has the time come for more brands to move beyond raising awareness? Is it not time that they began making a tangible contribution to turn that objective into a reality?

Tim Jotischky, Divisional Managing Director of Reputation at The PHA Group

Nevertheless, research by Ipsos UK suggests that there will be plenty of interest in the tournament. Three in five football fans intend to follow it closely – much higher than the 48% who followed the previous FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019, and only slightly below the 66% who followed last year’s Euros, which was a home tournament. England’s opening match against Haiti attracted a peak audience of 4.2million on ITV, a 39.4% audience share, and more than 1.5 million tickets have been sold – a tournament record.

Nike scored an own goal by refusing to produce a replica Lioness goalkeeper jersey shirt – goalkeeper Mary Earps revealed she was so hurt by the decision that she had even offered to pay for the production herself.

The Lionesses are favourites to win – backed by 42% of more than 2,000 adults surveyed by Ipsos – and more than one in two say the Lionesses have enjoyed better results on the pitch than England’s men. So, there is plenty of goodwill for brands to leverage by associating themselves with the team. 

Orange partnered with the French Football Federation, launching a clever two-minute advert showing clips of tricks and flicks, apparently performed by male stars such as Kylian Mbappe, only to reveal they were from matches played by the women’s team. Slick editing with VFX fools the viewer and the video then shows the real clips performed by female stars.

The advert is clever because it recognises that women footballers want to be acclaimed for their skill and professionalism – not necessarily for their contribution to the diversity agenda. The same thing has happened in Paralympic sport where most athletes want the focus to be on their achievements, not on their back stories, however remarkable and inspiring they might be.

Samira Brophy, Director of Creative Excellence at Ipsos UK, believes that some brands are missing a trick by not getting away from a male perspective, however well intentioned. The Adidas campaign “Play Until They Can’t Look Away” features male and female players; Nike plays on the relationship between fathers and daughters. 

Trying to make the point that women’s sport should be on an equal footing with the men’s game is laudable, of course. But has the time come for more brands to move beyond raising awareness? Is it not time that they began making a tangible contribution to turn that objective into a reality?

The former England player Karen Carney has published a review of women’s football, arguing for a complete overhaul of its funding. She said: “We should see women's football as a start-up business that needs an injection of cash. There will be really big rewards at the end of it, I do think in the next decade it will be a billion-pound industry."

But funding remains the biggest issue – for example, annual investment from the Premier League into men’s academies is £88m compared to the overall FA budget for women’s academies of £3.25m. 

One of the review’s recommendations is that all women’s teams in the Women’s Super League (WSL) and FA Championship should be fully professional. But as Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish pointed out in a newspaper column after last year’s Euros, that presents serious challenges because the game has been created from the top downwards and the WSL is dominated by a handful of super-teams. Any Championship team trying to break into the WSL faces the prospect of losing £1m-£2m a year with the only motivation being trying to avoid relegation.

There lies the opportunity for brands to move from awareness raising to activism. It does not have to be noisy activism. Sponsorship and commercial funding can unlock opportunities to make the women’s domestic game more financially sustainable. 

Unilever’s personal care brands, such as Dove, Lux and Sure, are official sponsors of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the campaign is not restricted to raising brand awareness. As a FIFA partner, Unilever is also collaborating on its Women’s Development Programme, which promotes the growth of women and girl’s football around the globe.

Few brands can call on Unilever’s resources, but investing much more smaller sums in the women’s game in this country could have a disproportionate impact in advancing its development. That is activism in the truest sense of the word.

Guest Author

Tim Jotischky

Divisional Managing Director of Reputation The PHA Group


Tim Jotischky is Divisional Managing Director of Reputation at The PHA Group

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