This Girl Can: Case Study

Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign was based on a powerful insight. It got 2.8 million women exercising with a refreshingly honest portrayal of exercise…

The Problem
Sport England’s research (the Active People survey) highlighted a persistent gender gap in sports participation. Nearly 2 million more men than women took part in sport regularly (at least 30 minutes of moderate activity once a week), despite the combined impact of health messages, sports marketing and London 2012 inspiration.
We had tried to tackle this gap in the past by investing Lottery funding into projects that overcame the practical barriers women told us they had - providing childcare, running women only sessions, putting on more of the types of sports and activities they told us they wanted to do. But despite overall participation levels for men and women rising since 2005, the gender gap remained constant.
Confusingly, the same survey told us that 75 per cent of women wanted to play more sport. So what was stopping them?
The Insight
We dug further and gathered in research from other organisations - and found a wealth of emotional barriers that were getting in the way. Women told us they were ‘too fat to get fit’, ‘would slow everyone down’, ‘hated getting red-faced and sweaty,’ ‘felt ridiculous in lycra’ and ‘felt selfish spending time on themselves and not the kids.’ There were many, many more — even the women and girls who enjoyed sport at school were not sure it fitted in with their identity and lifestyle once they had left.
Ultimately it all added up to a fear of judgement - by other people and by ourselves. For this group of women, it became easier to not be active then to tackle the emotions getting involved stirred up.
We recognised that we needed a campaign celebrating the women and girls who had successfully managed or navigated their barriers and were getting active or playing sport on their own terms. We want to normalise sport and physical activity, make it a social activity for the women and girls you don’t normally see in sports marketing. And we wanted to give women permission to join in - regardless of whether they were an expert or a bit rubbish…
Also, defining our target audience in the first place was a key part of our insight and then evaluating all our work to make sure it was having the desired effect. We used qualitative and quantitative research to monitor changes in attitudes. They kept telling us to work with the This Girl Can people as they didn’t know who they were. Anecdotally we could also tell we were getting through by the response on social media - women were taking their pictures next to our ads and tweeting them to us.
"Ultimately we want to get more women and girls playing sport, especially amongst those groups of women who don’t think sport and physical activity is for ‘people like them’. But this is a behaviour change campaign and we recognised this takes time - so we also want to change attitudes so that more women were open to the idea of being active and feeling that it was for ‘women like them’."
The Challenges
As a public sector organisation, we have to demonstrate value for money at all times. We had to prove that this was the best way of reaching and motivating this target audience.
Also, by definition, Sport England is an organisation traditionally staffed by people who love sport. It’s why they choose to work here. So we had to help those people understand an audience with a very different mindset about the thing they loved.
Our insight was invaluable in meeting both these challenges. It provided an objective rationale for the campaign. We came back to it repeatedly through the creative development and tested all our approaches against what the target audience was telling us.
This also helped us persuade the sport sector to back the campaign . We don’t deliver sport and physical activity directly ourselves, so we needed the organisations that do to understand the needs and motivations of the women we were switching on to sport and physical activity.
The Pitching Process
We went through a painstaking (and for the agencies involved probably painful) pitching process. We shared reams of insight with the shortlisted contenders and met with them regularly so they could test their understanding and insight before the final pitch. We didn’t want it to be a beauty contest, we didn’t expect to get the final creative solution via the pitch itself (and we didn’t). We wanted to find an agency who we could work with strategically and creatively to develop the campaign. They had to clearly understand the difference between what we needed and traditional sports marketing as well as the rigours of a behaviour change campaign. We wanted to be able to work together as a team, not have a supplier/client relationship.
The Creative Process
Every creative idea was tested against our insight to make sure we didn’t just end up choosing something we liked. It was long and arduous. It was a long summer of meetings as we sifted through ideas, refined the brief and eventually arrived at This Girl Can. We tried lots of different approaches - some more confrontational. We knew the campaign had to be disruptive - this couldn’t be another message that made our women feel bad about themselves. We didn’t want to hector or nag - most of us know we should be doing more exercise if we’re not particularly active. We had to experiment with just how disruptive a public sector organisation could be. One route used an explicit pop song as a riposte to the cat caller and nay-sayers who put women down. It was great but possibly a step too far for us.
The Slogan
The slogans were shortlisted to four and taken back to focus groups. A group of young women rejected one we liked - I can’t remember which one now - as ‘something my mum would say,’ so that was pretty much ruled out instantly.
This Girl Can connected with all the groups in our target audience (14-40 year old women, so pretty broad). They said it felt empowering without being intimidating - there’s no expectation that you have to be amazing - if you never get past run to a tree, walk past a tree - that’s fine. But if you start to run and end up competing in ultra marathons, that’s cool too. We needed a slogan that individual women could adapt to their own relationship with physical activity.
We discussed the use of the word ‘girl’ extensively. It can be used to dismiss and patronise women, particularly in sport where there is a long tradition of talking about sports men and sports girls (or even worse ladies). Our research showed that girl was the one word all ages in our target audience could connect to and use - they felt it was fine to use about themselves. It’s not fine when others (especially men) use it pejoratively.
The Audience
This was a first for Sport England so getting the necessary permissions and support from Government was probably the largest challenge. We had to show (quite rightly) that this was a good use of public money and that it would deliver results. And we had to hold our nerve - success feels inevitable when it happens but I remember having a nightmare before the ad actually launched, that nobody would notice it. However we spent three months engaging key influencers in sport and health sectors to ensure they supported and promoted the campaign. And we built up an online community via social listening before the first advert went live.
The Film
Kim Gehrig was the Ad Director, who we found through SomeSuch. It was then street-casted- all the women and girls featured are doing the activities they usually do. We found them in gyms and parks, on football fields and swimming in the Mersey. Authenticity was absolutely key - I’m sure some of them thought the shoot was going to be glamourous but we worked them hard. Every drop of sweat you see is genuine. Every red face was hard earned.
The Learnings
Are you sick of the word insight yet? Make sure you really understand your audience’s mindset and are clear about the change you are trying to effect. Don’t be swayed by what you like, this is about what will have an impact on them.
Also - don’t just launch. You need to prepare your sector and help them understand why you are taking a creative approach that won’t necessarily resonate with them. It might not be for them but you need to be supportive.
Finally - don’t just use social media to broadcast your message. Use it to listen to what your audience are telling you. Don’t be the cocktail party bore banging on about yourself, you’re seeking to create and curate conversations that charm.
The Results
  • 2.8 million 14-40 year old women say they have done some or more activity as a result of our campaign. This is measured by a mix of qual and quant research
  • 1.6 million of these say they have got back into sport or tried it for the first time as a direct result of the campaign
  • Our Active People Survey shows that 150,000 more women are now active at least once a week, every week
  • There have been over 660,000 tweets using the #ThisGirlCan hashtag - and it’s been used by women every single day since we launched above the line in January 2015
  • Our This Girl Can films have been watched over 37 million times on YouTube and Facebook alone

Project Tags


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