Butterfly at Ad Week Europe: Building a brand narrative around women in sport

What is sport?

First of all, let’s think about the definition of “sport” – is it an aggressive exercise in discipline and strength? Is it a social institution nearing religious status that rallies followers to engage in players’ activities both on and off the pitch? Or is it a component part of a healthy and mindful lifestyle where it’s the journey rather than the destination that counts? Our upbringing and society would push us towards the former two definitions, pointing to a patriarchal view of sport that limits participation to men with a physical advantage to win.

What does this mean for female would-be athletes around the world? Which brands are bringing them the narratives that permit their participation, which their childhoods lacked? Last week at Ad Week Europe these questions were debated, raising interesting questions around the role brands can play to cater to the growing trend in health and wellness for women, and to bring sports to communities that lack the infrastructure.

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Women will outpace men

In a talk around whether or not we truly believe “This Girl Can”, the inherent differences between the male and female experience of sport indicated a vast cavern that is often impassable. Yes, passions are excited in both men and women, but these vary between a male obsession with following well-known leagues, and a female desire to participate and socialise. Chris Carroll, the EMEA Marketing Director of Under Armour, claims that women are as important as ever in his field, and went as far as to claim that women will outpace men in sportswear spending in four years.

Female aspiration

Indicative of the female aspiration to participate as opposed to winning, is that she is drawn to aspirational images of physical activity. This is why Katie Mulloy, Editor of Women’s Health, is far more likely to put Rihanna in Puma or Beyoncé sporting her Ivy Park lycra on the cover of her magazine, rather than our most celebrated female athletes. Sport should be part of a healthy lifestyle, which women can fit around work and school runs. Multitasking singers are therefore more attainable than the lifestyles of the demi-goddesses that are Serena Williams and Jessica Ennis. The “uncomfortable truth”, Katie says, is that this would be “overselling the dream”.

Ivy Park

Sport has had a long and complicated history, but what is clear is that its narrative has been built for and around men. Headlines update us on the melodrama surrounding minor league football injuries, scandals and transfers, telling an enthralling story with all the twists and turns of a never-ending soap opera. Meanwhile, we get a one-line update on the progress of our women’s hockey team in the world championships. Not only is the narrative skewed in terms of word count, but the lack of a sustained story and emotional engagement means that no one, never mind women, are remotely interested in how well our female hockey team are doing. How likely are they then to want to join their local hockey club?

How can brands therefore target women? They would have to build on the triggers and motivations for women, which are strongly rooted in lifestyle and friendship. In school, girls learn that there’s only one sporty clique, and that “The Sporty One” in her group can’t share her role. There is therefore an element of permissibility that women are subconsciously looking for, whether it’s raising money for charity, gossiping with friends over dumbbells rather than cocktails, or something worthy of an Instagram filter. A successful sports engagement campaign would acknowledge these concerns, perhaps through social media. This would not undermine women’s ready eagerness to mobilise themselves, as they have done with the inspiration of social media star Kayla Itsines. They are therefore not looking for clichéd sources of inspiration, but grassroots movements that they can bring to life with their friends locally, or even to make friends.

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Beyond mobilising women and catering to health and wellness trends, brands also have the power to build a different culture around sport. They can encourage women to break taboos, and challenge patriarchal views of sport to acknowledge “feminine” pursuits such as ballet and dance not as “soft” forms of physical activity, but as equally demanding activities which deserve greater funding and participation. Many brands missed the golden opportunity of the 2012 London Olympics, but sportswear brands are determined to better capitalise on Rio this year; we can’t wait to see how far this will go towards levelling the playing field.

Megan Powell, Associate Consultant, 29.04.16 (megan@butterflylondon.com)