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Marc Allenby writes on how Channel 4’s constant strive toward inclusivity has inspired his own work
A new report from Revolt and Kind underlines the long-term opportunity and unique cultural revolution powered by women’s football
“The question is one of long-term commitment. How do you ensure that you are the voice when it’s quiet?” Audrey Arbeeny, Head of Marketing, UK at Kind is explaining that the question for progressive brands at the end of a historic World Cup is not about capitalising on a one-off moment for women’s football. Instead, smart brands are playing the long game. Not just because it is the right thing to do for society, but because it is good for business.
Arbeeny has spent most of her day standing in a field reading messages of support from fans across the UK. As well as listening to former football internationals sharing why this milestone in women’s football matters so much.
As the tournament kicked off, Kind Snacks, an official partner of the England Football team, partnered with PR agency Ready10 to create a message of support the size of a football pitch that was visible from the sky as the Lionesses took off. The 100 metre wide by 20 metre tall message read: ‘Lionesses, you’re our pride’. Now as the team prepares to return home with their silver medals, the Kind team are back in the field, to create another giant, this time declaring: ‘You Did Us Proud’.
The sign is made up of thousands of individual messages of support from fans, as well as former football internationals Faye White and Rachel Yankey. The messages of support tie in with Kind’s brand positioning of kindness.
How do you ensure that you are the voice when it’s quiet?Audrey Arbeeny, Head of Marketing, UK at Kind
When you zoom in on the giant sign you can see the messages of thanks from across the UK. A detail that shows how much this tournament really means to people. As Evie in Dagenham writes: “Ladies, your unity is a powerful force. You’re not just a team - you’re a movement that’s empowering young minds to dream big and aim high.”
It’s that detail and understanding of what women’s football really means to the players, the fans and society alike that was so evidently missing from much of the marketing commentary that accompanied the inevitable backlash to Nike’s decision not to make a Mary Earps shirt.
The brand’s slow U-turn on its decision was a reminder of the battles that even the world’s top-tier players are still tackling off the pitch. As the goalkeeper explained: “I can’t really sugar-coat this in any way, so I am not going to try. It is hugely disappointing and very hurtful.” Fans didn’t wait for Nike’s change of heart, instead, they made their own shirts, underlining how fans are not looking to the past for guidance, they are forging a future rooted in inclusivity.
The disconnect between brand and fan underlines the unique culture of women’s football. To better understand and support this unique, inclusive and growing fandom, Kind has teamed up with purpose agency Revolt to research women’s football fandom. The research shines a light on what it describes as a culture of ‘camaraderie, kindness and competition.’ The insights are the result of a combination of qualitative research from experts on the women’s game and influential fans, as well as quantitative research of 500 fans across the UK.
The result is a nuanced and diverse lens on the women’s game which provides a much-needed inflection point after a historic Women’s World Cup. As well as a reminder that as the game moves on the notion that it needs to prove that women’s football can ‘live up to’ or be ‘as good as the men’s game’ is disingenuous.
As Carrie Dunn, Author and academic, explains in the report: “Women’s football fandom is not necessarily a carbon copy of men’s football fandom.” Rather than looking to the men’s game to provide a bench-mark, smart brands will recognise that women’s football is changing the game completely. Yet the danger remains that brands return to the sidelines and see this moment as a peak of a hype cycle, rather than a fundamental shift in the game.
For Kind, supporting women’s football is an authentic, long-term investment. “For brands the question is when can you be the game changer. For brands like Kind win or lose you have to be there and show up.”
Women’s football fandom is not necessarily a carbon copy of men’s football fandom.Carrie Dunn, Author and academic
For the England team, the first World Cup final since 1966 was a once in a generation moment in sporting history. In 1921 the English FA announced a total ban on women playing football and it took until 1971 for the FA to lift that ban. Gamechanger might be an overused word in marketing, but the England team lives up to the promise; every time they play, they change the game.
Writing in the Telegraph, Journalist, Author and body positivity activist Bryony Gordon, brings to life the scale of the cultural shift women’s football is driving: “It is momentous because it allows us to see women using sport to make their lives bigger, rather than their waists smaller. It is momentous because for so long, sport has felt like a punishment for women, something we have to do to stay in shape and look good and stay attractive to men.”
Gordon writes that football is now a language that women are allowed to speak. Yet in many ways the research underlines that the women’s games’ culture is not simply a blueprint of the men’s game, particularly when it comes to fandoms. Brands, players and supporters alike are learning a new language altogether.
It is momentous because it allows us to see women using sport to make their lives bigger, rather than their waists smaller.Bryony Gordon, Journalist and Author
Kind’s Arbeeny believes that brands who show up in the good times and the bad can truly be game changers. She explains: “For brands like Kind win or lose you have to be there to show up and show why this matters.” She continues: “For the team, it's how you overcome those obstacles and that grit is why these teams resonate with fans.”
Arbeeny herself is showing up reading the messages of support from fans. “There is such momentum building, it is the victories both on and off the pitch that matter.”
Women’s football wants to forge its own path.Audrey Arbeeny, Head of Marketing, UK at Kind
The research reveals that for the fans, maintaining the unique culture of women’s football as it scales is vital. A challenge highlighted by a fan cited in the report asking: ‘How do we keep positivity as we scale?’
For Arbeeny this challenge is one for marketers to step up to. “As brands, it's important to share the challenges of the team and we want to co-create and collaborate. This means we need to listen to the fans, as that’s what makes the team and that’s what makes us a brand.”
Arbeeny continues: “There are still challenges in terms of increased representation, ethnicity and class.” Yet she underlines the opportunity. “Women’s football is so powerful in terms of what it can do. There is so much potential.” Yet she notes that realising that potential must come hand in hand with protecting its unique culture. She points to the research showing a real desire not to forge ‘our own path’ when it comes to growing the women’s game.
“Everyone wants to talk to me about it and the conversation is about much more than women's sport - its social causes - it feels like a revolution and you feel like you are making change. That is why we have chosen to partner with the Lionesses. We have shared values when it comes to kindness. I get inspired by the challenges we can overcome.”
There is a role there for brands to give players more of a voice - there is a shared value. We love that they stand for something deeper.Audrey Arbeeny, Head of Marketing, UK at Kind
For Alan Bryant, Strategy Director at Revolt, the key is not to see growth reflected just through scale. As the research showed, fans are focused on depth. He explained: “It’s not about growth just in terms of numbers it is about depth. It is about getting to know the players, so the question is how do we give people more content and more understanding of the players.”
It is a shift which he emphasises is not just about top-tier clubs but everything from the grassroots game to the WSL. When asked what is holding people back from being fans, ‘a lack of knowledge of women’s football’ was one of the top answers, but it was a ‘lack of access’ that was noted by more than half of respondents (54%). So what is the role of brands in building women’s sports and driving equity in sports sponsorship more broadly?
Arbeeny believes brands have a clear role to play when it comes to tackling both lack of access and visibility. She explains: “There is momentum building. The visibility is building the game in a direction that does drive impact from action. But we need to have the right access, whether it's kit, access to training and respect for players. Brands can really provide that visibility.”
She continues: “We love that they stand for something deeper. It makes it really exciting for brands to have an impact on the game and the sport for generations to come.”
It is not an act of kindness to support the women's game, it's an act of good business.Alan Bryant, Strategy Director at Revolt
Revolt’s Bryant says that while a brand can’t ‘do everything and solve every problem’ there is an opportunity for brands to be champions. As the sponsorship gap remains so vast in many ways this ‘champion’ role extends to both the game and players, but also to other brands.
He explains: “It is not an act of kindness to support the women's game, it's an act of good business. By highlighting that and getting involved early other brands can look at that example and see how they can get involved.”
Kindness isn’t a word we often see associated with sports marketing or one of the world’s most competitive tournaments. Yet arguably one of the most compelling images from the tournament was Chloe Kelly consoling Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie after England won on penalties.
In many ways, the Women’s World Cup is redefining in real time what it means to be a sporting role model. “I feel like a lot of these women in these teams are such role models they are so relatable they are so authentic - they have fought for change - there is something really relatable and inspiring in that,” says Arbeeny.
She continues: “These are remarkable moments. These players in these teams are exceptional. They are top talent and top tier. Now they have the visibility, they have the resources and the moments are unique.”
Arbeeny underlines that these players are both reliable and remarkable. So just as fans praised Chloe Kelly’s kindness, Mary Earp’s epic final save became the meme and the moment that stood out to fans.
“Mary Earps' save was just energising and those are the moments that make it unique. These players are so unique,” adds Arbeeny.
Kindness isn’t a passive act.Kelsey Freeman, Co-Founder of Change The Channel
The research underlines that while Kindness is key, it's got to be active. Only 7% of fans surveyed don’t feel the women’s game is kind. Fans agree that kindness will be important for the game today and tomorrow. It’s important to note that this is an active approach. As Kelsey Freeman, Co-Founder of Change The Channel, explains: “Kindness isn’t a passive act.”
Instead, kindness is identified by fans as a fundamental value of the game. Fans also spoke to how kindness often stands in contrast to being simply pleasant. Instead, demonstrating kindness towards fellow fans and the game as a whole can involve having the courage to speak out against injustices and advocating for the game. Including a willingness to raise their voices against any detrimental trends and behaviours, safeguarding the values that have contributed to the positive culture surrounding women’s football. As one noted: “Be kind, not nice. You can be tough on someone out of kindness”.
It is not a single message of struggle. Brands are leaning into exceptional play on the pitch.Alan Bryant, Strategy Director, Revolt
Bryant is clear that this isn’t about ignoring the barriers altogether. He explains: “It is not a single message of struggle. Brands are leaning into exceptional play on the pitch.” In essence the time for arguing that the women's game is ‘as good as’ the men's game is long gone.
A nuance which is underlined by the mixed response from Orange’s World Cup spot which used CGI to superimpose the faces of well-known French male football players onto female play, before revealing that the footage was actually taken from games played by the women’s team.
Bryant shares: “It was interesting to me that that advert was so popular. Fans have moved beyond that. It feels like we don’t have to say the women’s team is as good as the men's team. Treat women as the amazing players they are. Where there are issues, brands should get involved in creating that progress.”
It’s a point of view which is echoed in the research, which underlines that marketers must beware of believing fans will thank them for simply turning up. As Carrie Dunn explains: “It’s like this gratitude narrative. It’s like everything that’s been given to women’s football is expected that female football fans, players, everyone will say, "Oh, thank you, thank you for it, Women are expected to be grateful.”
For Arbeeny, igniting a dialogue about equality is a positive step. She explains: “It is not just about women’s sport, it is so much more than just an empowerment message. The messages of support we have received show how much this means to people. This team has achieved the dreams of a generation. As one fan shared, it's not just the noise they are creating, it is the symphonies of support.”
To understand women’s football fandoms is to understand the gratitude that these fans have for the players. As Arbeeny explains: “It is incredible to see the camaraderie and solidarity of the nation coming together. You get people from all corners coming to support the teams and see matches.”
To see all the messages of support from fans is remarkable. She continues: “They are the reason the players get on the pitch. They get what makes it different and why it is so unique. The energy has been incredible even though it has been played on the other side of the world at different times of the day.”
The ripple effects of this tournament will impact generations to come. Yet as we look back on this tournament there are big questions to answer about who didn’t turn up. Fifa president Gianni Infantino, sparked a worldwide backlash when he declared women who “pick the right fights” can “convince us men what we have to do” – adding that women must “push the door” to equality. Prince William, as president of the FA, was criticised for playing the ‘father of daughter card’ when he decided not to attend the tournament.
Through a marketing lens there also remains questions about who didn’t turn up and why. As Byrant explains: ‘Six to eight months ago when people talked about what the tournament was going to be like, people talked about the early starts and how far away it was.”
While you can never predict how far a team will go, the cultural currency of the women’s game is beyond debate. The question for brands and agencies who sat on the sidelines remains: what are you waiting for?
To read the full report click here.
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