FIFA Women’s World Cup: a breakthrough year for Brand Partnerships?

It’s no secret that brand support in the UK felt somewhat scarce in the lead-up to this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, with Jenny Mitton, women’s sport lead and managing partner at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, referring to the atmosphere as “eerily quiet”.

But was she impressed by the way things turned out?

“I still think the PR moments from brands have been thin on the ground,” admits Mitton.

“We went into this tournament with a European Champion-winning team and records being broken in the domestic game every week. Yet I can count a handful of UK brand PR activations. Why the reluctance?”

That being said, she has noticed some progress: “The main breakthrough we’ve seen this year is brands waking up to the fact that women’s football isn’t just for women.

“The Orange France and Bud Messi ads may have divided the internet,” says Mitton, “but they demonstrated a real shift in how women’s football is perceived by big brands. It’s the first time we’ve seen global brands produce work that specifically targets men’s football fans.”

“This was a clear signal to me that the growth potential is now being realised.”

When it comes to the world of broadcast PR, however, expert Josh Wheeler isn’t so convinced of much comparable progress.

“Despite efforts by certain media sectors, there’s a lot of ground left to cover,” says the founder of Be Broadcast.

“A typical male sports campaign almost always receives solid media attention, while women’s sports, even on a global stage like the World Cup, grapples for equivalent recognition.”

He believes that “campaigns during this World Cup have performed well – eventually – but nowhere near as ‘slam dunk’ as a fairly average one in the men’s arena”.

“There have been a lot more brands finding creative ways to support this tournament,” states Kat Thomas, founder and executive creative director of PR agency One Green Bean. “But the cynic in me would say that most did so because there’s a commercial angle to doing so, versus celebrating a moment of national pride.”

She adds: “The fact that coverage on BBC and ITV was confirmed so late in the day was shocking – broadcasters remaining on the fence meant a number of brands did too, which is understandable.”

Richard Hanney, director of strategy and creative copy at Ilk Agency, agrees that wider issues have contributed to “lingering doubt” from brands, “in a way that simply wouldn’t be an issue in the men’s game”.

Using the example of unconventional kick-off times, meaning matches weren’t shown in ‘prime time’ in the UK, Hanney demonstrates that more savvy brands used quirks of the tournament to their advantage.

“I think the smart play would be to see that as an opportunity,” he says. “Yes, the overall audience numbers might be smaller, but if you have a brand that matches an available target audience – especially younger demographics mid-school holidays – then actually that hesitancy might help secure better-value partnerships and media space.”

He points out Weetabix as a brand that “made the kick-off times work for them”.

Which brands are getting it right?

When it comes to other brands showing authentic commitment, Mitton believes one that “always shows up for football (both men’s and women’s) is McDonald’s”.

Having made Beth Mead figurines and hosted UK-wide watch parties with women’s football icons and other celebrity guests, as well as partnering clothing brand Art of Football, official restaurant sponsor McDonald’s has, according to Mitton, “generated buzz that’s been hard to avoid”.

Another major UK business showing its commitment to women’s sport with a formal partnership this year has been M&S Food, which worked with the FA and Lionesses on its ‘Eat well, play well’ campaign.

Sharry Cramond, marketing director for M&S Food and Hospitality, told PRWeek: “Celebrating the Lionesses’ success is, of course, attractive to brands, but being an active part of that success is where brands, the team and the public can really benefit.”

She says it was an “obvious choice” to put a football-themed spin on M&S Food’s mission to help families eat healthier, by using the power of football to further fuel more active lifestyles.

“The Lionesses’ success is not just down to what happens on the pitch – the team’s nutrition expertise allows them to play well by eating well,” says Crammond, adding that it is beneficial for the players to talk about topics beyond sport.

“It’s time that brands recognise the power of women’s football,” she says, “as young women need role models so they can chase their own sporting dreams. Investment in women’s football remains significantly less than men’s and we want to be part of that drive for parity.”

Unilever, also a major sponsor of this year’s tournament, expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with PRWeek, as global chief marketing officer for its personal care brands, Samir Singh, clarified that “fleeting partnerships” and “slapping logos onto jerseys” will no longer work.

In terms of wider support, One Green Bean’s Thomas says Nike and Adidas have led the charge in recent years with women’s football, accelerating the otherwise “slow journey” to get more brands on board.

“The Euros last summer was a game-changer,” she explains. “Many more brands outside of official sponsors got involved.”

One of those, she points out, was her client Domino’s, which launched a successful campaign in which it changed the name of its Leeds store to ‘Lucy’s’ in honour of England player Lucy Bronze, who once worked in the branch.

“That felt like a roll of the dice at the time,” admits Thomas. “Now I’m a lot more confident the momentum is there to amplify women’s football through editorial and social.”

Planning for future tournaments

To keep driving positive change for women’s sports, Wheeler says the key is to “amplify visibility”.

“This isn’t just during the matches or at tournaments,” he clarifies, “this is far and wide.”

To achieve this, he says Be Broadcast is looking to champion grassroots and medium-sized groups discussing gender equality in the sport, helping them get picked up on broadcast media outlets beyond the World Cup.

Looking ahead to the next big women’s football tournament, PR pros are united in their belief that preparation is necessary for brands that want to stand out and generate coverage.

“With my brand head-on, doubt is also an opportunity,” says Ilk’s Hanney.

“The women’s game isn’t (yet) saturated with the kind of money the men’s game has, and as such I think it makes a huge amount of sense for brands to be securing longer-term tie-ins and partnerships now.”

He gives the example of Lauren James, who is “no secret to those who follow the game”, but has had a “breakout moment” among the general public over the past few weeks.

“It’s the sort of rich narrative potential that brands desperately want to be a part of,” says Hanney, “so calculated gambles on up-and-coming players is an approach that I expect to become increasingly common in the women’s game.”

“I want to see better planning from brands,” concurs Mitton.

“Show up earlier, start a narrative in the build-up to the World Cup and don’t just wait until the knockout stages,” she advises. “Going live earlier will help brands build credibility in the women’s football space.”

“The beautiful game is just getting bigger,” Mitton asserts. “Don’t miss out.”

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