Sabrina Shim
Jul 19, 2023

The Women’s World Cup: Will brands get equality in sport right?

Brand sponsors of women’s sports often sound patronizing, or worse, unwittingly reinforce harmful misconceptions.

The Women’s World Cup: Will brands get equality in sport right?

The 2023 Women’s World Cup kicks off on July 20th, boasting record ticket sales. Fox Sports reports that 90% of ads during the tournament are sold out. 

What can we expect to see from brands? The same old purpose-driven campaigns telling women athletes what they already know — that it’s tough out there? Or something more interesting? 

The Women’s Euros last year was a wasted opportunity to cement women's soccer in people’s minds, with many brand sponsors sounding patronizing, or worse, unwittingly reinforcing harmful misconceptions.

Visa’s When more of us play, all of us win fell into the patronizing camp — a consolatory pat on the back for taking part in the sport and another example of professional sports women being held up as the answer to gender inequality in society. LinkedIn’s Follow in her footsteps unhelpfully framed women of today as stepping stones for those of tomorrow. 

Heineken’s The 12th woman (a twist on the term for collective fan support, the 12th man), aimed to challenge gender bias and stereotypes. But it inadvertently amplified the negative idea of the “woke police” — making people feel they can’t say anything right these days. Or that gender bias can be solved with a t-shirt.

There’s a lot of room for improvement. So how can brands encourage more inclusion and fairness for women in sports? And, if they’re sincere about moving the dial, how should they talk about it?

Words matter

The “North London Derby” (NLD) is one of the richest, most evocative phrases in English Premier League soccer. And for 99% of the population, it’s tied to the men’s game. But that didn’t matter to the marketers of the recent Women’s Super League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

Sure, some people might have found the omission of the word “women’s” from the derby’s title confusing. But it’s a small price to pay for the confidence that comes with saying “This is the NLD”. A small shift, with big impact.

But one slogan can’t do it all

Words aren’t the only thing that matter here. They should express a brand’s  values, objectives or policies around equality, diversity and inclusion, which then needs to roll out across multiple touchpoints. If that commitment is not wide-reaching and consistent, it can go spectacularly wrong (an off-message quote, a toe-curling circular, a cringe-worthy newsletter). 

A “toolkit” could be valuable — a one-liner is a useful hook to attract attention, but then you need to follow up with different messages on the practical steps you’re taking to address the problem.

Let’s talk about the sport 

Instead of making every campaign a heavy-handed bid for equality, it’s time to emphasize what makes women’s soccer culture different, or even the same — and celebrate it. The entertainment, excitement and new fans. The storylines, personalities, “the beautiful game.” The inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. 

While they can be well-meaning, purpose-driven campaigns often take away from the actual sport. Which is what fans really want to see. Focusing on the sport would go a long way in normalizing women in sports — rather than creating mythical figures and perpetuating exceptionalism.

It’s not about beating up brands for making an effort (so long as it’s sincere). And it’s not about being “perfect” at all times — there should always be room to learn. It’s simply an opportunity for brands to rethink whether or not their “purpose” advertising is actually in service of equality.

The World Cup is a real chance for brands to actively push for positive representation of women, and perhaps even lead the way — through actions and words. 

Sabrina Shim is a Sabrina Shim is a branding expert and a writer for verbal branding agency Reed Words.

Campaign US

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