This week, my five-year-old son opened his copy of Kick! magazine and eagerly jumped to the poster section to choose the next footballing legend to join the likes of Messi, Kane and Hazard on his walls.
To my surprise and delight, the poster he was most excited about was a team photo of the recently announced Women’s World Cup squad. Why was this a surprise? Six months ago, the same child would mutter comments such as, “Girls can’t play football” and, “Why is she in my magazine?!” if he saw a female footballer.
This seismic shift is palpable across all ages, genders and sporting sectors. It is part of a revolution in sport, and one of those at the forefront of this is Marzena Bogdanowicz – The Football Association’s Head of Marketing and Commercial, Women’s Football, and one of the team whose mission it is to make women’s football go mainstream this summer.
The FA’s view
I recently saw Marzena speak at SportsPro Live, along with the FA’s Head of Marketing (another female leader) Georgina Lewis. I was impressed by Marzena’s single-minded determination to change attitudes and put women’s football on a global stage.
Speaking again at a recent European Sponsorship Association event at Wembley, Marzena was more pragmatic about the challenge that lies ahead: “The biggest challenge is perception – it’s accelerating, but it’s still there.”
Marzena talked about the highly successful Women’s World Cup squad announcement, which she says far exceeded the team’s wildest hopes for the momentum it gathered.
Even those outside the football world were talking about the announcement, which involved a stellar line up of celebrities including Emma Watson and The Duke of Cambridge revealing each player one by one, in an attempt to add weight to the individual names.
Marzena comments, “We know we have to profile the team members but the challenge was that no one was waiting for the squad announcement. There was no payment to the ambassadors; they believed in the mission to inspire girls and get the nation behind the team.”
Finding a shared purpose
It is this sense of shared purpose that has garnered sponsorship support from big brands such as Visa, Barclays and P&G – who have all pledged a commitment to women’s football as part of their marketing plans.
For Barclays, it was a natural evolution following 18 years as the Official Bank of the Premier League.
“It was the right thing to do,” says Katy Bowman – Barclays’ Senior Sponsorship Partnerships Manager, of the decision to make a ‘record-breaking’ investment in women’s football, with a title sponsorship of the FA Women’s Super League. The multi-million pound deal is said to be the largest ever commercial investment in women’s sport in the UK.
I wondered whether there were any challenges internally to making such a significant investment at a time when perceptions are yet to shift completely.
“Our corporate communications team said it was the most consistently positive response to any announcement Barclays has made in the past eight years,” said Katy.
I was impressed by Barclays’ authentic and holistic commitment to the women’s game, from grass roots to the elite sport.
“It was never about women’s football at the expense of men’s,” continues Katy. “The FA and Barclays are trying to get girls’ football on the curriculum across the country.
We’re working with ambassadors to articulate our narrative in a genuine and meaningful way.”
Keep commercial ambitions in mind
Another sponsor speaking at the event was Matt Riches – Head of Partnerships at Lucozade Sport.
“We believe the tipping point is close and brands can be the connectors,” Matt explained about the decision to invest. “We have a credibility in sport and can start to deliver a Lucozade role to the women’s game. It makes commercial sense.”
Matt says Lucozade Sport’s ‘Made to Move’ campaign isn’t just about supporting women and societal change. “It’s also about selling more product and not missing out on an audience.”
In a brand first, Lucozade Sport is changing its bottles, with 16m limited edition packs showcasing two women’s players; England Lionesses defender and captain Steph Houghton and forward Nikita Parris.
This approach is helping the brand to win in retail. “Putting anything on our core DNA was a milestone moment,” adds Matt. “The excitement of retailers such as the Co-Op is proof that it’s working.”
But he knows sponsorship amplification isn’t just about on-pack awareness. This week, the brand released its new ‘Three Lionnesses’ song, a feminist anthem which will “form the heart” of the campaign.
Like Barclays, activity is also being supported through community and grass roots initiatives, including giving away 90,000 minutes of pitch time in partnership with Goals and Powerleague football centres.
P&G reveals the strategy behind its ‘Three Lions on your shirt, Three Lines in your hair’ campaign
The final speaker to talk at the ESA event was Celine Hernandez – Brand Manager, Haircare UK & Ireland at P&G.
The new Head and Shoulders campaign grabbed my attention when it was revealed the day before I saw Celine speak. I was keen to hear what she had to say about the activation, described as the brand’s first unisex campaign with equal weight to men and women.
Celine explained, “We want to raise awareness of women’s football, giving the players equal visibility. Head & Shoulders is a brand that’s always strived to provide confidence to men and women who need it the most when in the spotlight, and inspire future generations to let nothing hold them back. We’re encouraging people to #JoinThePride – a campaign to rally the nation, encouraging fans to show their support for the Lionesses with 3 lines in their hair, and 3 lions on their shirt.”
The potential for brands in women’s football
Opportunities are building for brands to get involved. Marketing Week describes the movement as, “a momentous opportunity to tap into a “culturally relevant” conversation in a growing commercial market.”
I was interested to see the content partnership between Lioness and team captain Steph Houghton and British Lion Eggs (geddit?), in which Steph appears a little awkward in a series of recipe videos, obviously trying to relax into her new-found fame.
Which is the exciting and scary thing for brands wanting to get involved at this stage of unchartered territory. Not wanting to miss a trick, yet afraid to be labelled as jumping on the bandwagon; I believe the creative execution of any campaign will be key to success.
Find a credible and authentic role in the sponsorship mix
For me, the commitment and dedication to moving the sport forward is the reason why Barclays and Lucozade Sport stand out as leaders of their field.
The challenge will be for smaller brands, without those ‘record-breaking’ budgets but still wanting to make a demonstrable impact in some way.
My advice to those in the latter camp is to be clear on the reasons for partnering. This is not about getting involved in women’s football because everyone is talking about it, then finding a tenuous hook to shoehorn your brand into the conversation.
It’s about finding shared values and purpose, understanding the game and what you can add to it, and supporting the FA or other organisations in their ambitions.
Look for opportunities to sponsor beyond the obvious platforms. I get excited about partnerships such as Lucozade Sport and Romance FC – a creative football collective from East London which includes filmmakers, DJs, coders and artists.
Supporting at grassroots level, such as giving more girls the chance to participate and get on the football pathway, is another meaningful entry route especially for family focused brands.