How brand and athletes’ made Tokyo the mother of all games

The Olympics might be over, but the marketing lessons are here to stay.

The IOC’s ambition for Tokyo 2020 was to run the first “gender neutral” games – with equal numbers of men and women competing and a greater emphasis on women’s sport. They didn’t quite manage the former (though they got closer than ever before) but women’s sport provided the most emotional stories from the Tokyo games, from the triumphs of teenage skateboarders to the pool rivalry of Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus and the heartbreak of Simone Biles.

Emotional stories are at the heart of great advertising, and sport creates plenty of them. But in the past, women’s sport has been neglected by brands. Brands have signed up battalions of male athletes as ambassadors while too often picking sportswomen for their looks not their achievements. At System1, we’ve seen how this has started to change, as part of a general ad industry shift to more diverse advertising telling a wider range of stories. How far have we really come though, and how far is there left to go?

There are plenty of recent examples from our Test Your Ad database of brands featuring sportswomen in their ads and getting extremely positive response when they do. Take Nike, for instance. Its controversial ad in 2018 starring Colin Kaepernick got all the headlines. But in the same campaign, it was an ad featuring the astonishing achievements of Serena Williams that scored highest for long-term effectiveness.

Or look at the Men’s and Women’s Football World Cups. When we tested ads for the Men’s World Cup, in 2018, we found very few high scoring ads, with almost no UK ads even reaching 3-Stars on our 1- to 5-Star Rating system. But the next year, in the Women’s World Cup, we saw several ads which beat anything in the Men’s competition, like Lucozade’s borrowing of “3 Lions”, and Nike’s 5-Star ad starring Megan Rapinoe and the US Women’s Team.

And in the 2018 Super Bowl, NBC showed three different ads starring female Winter Sports stars to advertise their Winter Olympics coverage. All three got the maximum 5-Stars. There is clearly a huge appetite for inspiring stories of female athletes.

So, brands can and should continue to feature women’s sports prominently. But the next step towards better representation of women’s sport is to turn away from the podium and start making greater efforts to feature diverse women as everyday athletes.

“We’re seeing brands break down other hidden taboos around women’s exercise and women’s stories. The latest ad in Tesco’s long-running Food Love Stories campaign, for instance, featured a swim club of middle-aged and older women”

Kerry Collinge, Director of Marketing and Partnerships Europe, System1

 

Here, again, Nike is leading the way, with an ad featuring what it calls the “Toughest Athletes” of all – ordinary pregnant women. Pregnancy and motherhood are too often still a flashpoint issue in women’s sports, even at the top level. Even at the supposedly “gender neutral” Tokyo Games, Canadian basketball player Kim Boucher had to campaign on social media to bring her three-month-old daughter (whom she was still breastfeeding) to Tokyo.

The organizing committee’s initial answer was no, given pandemic restrictions. When international media pressure mounted, the committee’s stance shifted.

If an elite athlete like Boucher can face discrimination around being a mother, how much more difficult is it for ordinary pregnant women and new mums? The Nike ad makes huge advances simply by acknowledging that yes, pregnant women do play sports and love playing sports, even if it’s a side of motherhood most brands shy away from. Here were women, beautifully and boldly participating in their respective sports, pregnant bellies out, showing how it’s not an either/or choice for women between motherhood and athletics.

We’re seeing brands break down other hidden taboos around women’s exercise and women’s stories. The latest ad in Tesco’s long-running Food Love Stories campaign, for instance, featured a swim club of middle-aged and older women. It was based on a real group, the Blue Tits, some of whom are featured in the background of the ad.

Why make an ad about these women? Tesco’s research showed that women over 60 feel under- or misrepresented in mainstream media; either they don’t see themselves at all, or they’re being depicted as stereotypical ‘nans’, which doesn’t tally with their experience.

They’re actually leading a much more exciting and vibrant life; socialising and finding new passions in various clubs, activities, and groups. And, of course, entertaining friends with great food.

Both the Nike and Tesco ads tested well among the general population, scoring 3-Stars with strong short-term Spike Ratings. But among custom samples of women (over 60 women in the case of the Tesco ad), the ads performed even better – jumping to 4-Stars.

We saw this effect in the recent Feeling Seen report we published in partnership with ITV and DECA. Repeatedly, we saw ads starring people from diverse groups perform well with a general audience but even better with people from those groups, who felt greater intensity from seeing their lives represented on screen. This “Diversity Dividend” makes great campaigns more effective overall.

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“The narrative of the individual woman overcoming adversity to become a winner still resonates, but brands can go further.”

Kerry Collinge, Director of Marketing and Partnerships Europe, System1

 

So how well did advertising rise to the IOC’s desire for a “gender neutral games”? The IOC’s own ad celebrated 100 years of womens’ achievement at the games by linking the oldest living Olympian, Agnes Keleki, to one of the new generation of female athletes, Sky Brown. It got a stellar 5-Star score in testing. The other 5-Star Olympic ad also starred a woman – Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, with a magical ad for Toyota.

The narrative of the individual woman overcoming adversity to become a winner still resonates, but brands can go further. And the examples of Nike and Tesco show the next step for brands wanting to celebrate women’s strength and athleticism – turn the spotlight back out into our communities and tell unheard stories of women of all ages and backgrounds.

When real human stories are seen, when a universal insight about how things can and should be better is unearthed, society shifts.  Everyone benefits.  Even brands.

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