It is not often that sports and business are interlinked, especially in the world of marketing to women. Other than the obvious watch brand ads using leading athletes to inspire female consumers, few communication strategies revolve around women in sports. In fact, women athletes earn much less than their male counterparts in sponsorships, as brands fail to appreciate how sports can inspire the female demographic.
Research has highlighted that there is a correlation between women’s success in business and their participation in team sports; the higher up the corporate ranks, the higher the likelihood of them having participated in team sports. Women are increasingly driving forces behind the boom of marathons and cycling races. Indeed, the recent Summer London Olympics and Winter Olympics in Sochi opened the playing field for women in numerous new sports, increasingly attracting a new demographic of viewers.
I have been baffled by the shortcomings of organizations in taking advantage of the winds of change and in investing in the sporting arena as a communication platform for women. This is despite the fact that from a commercial perspective, one sailing sponsorship veteran in the field openly admitted that “we had won the PR war before the boats had left the dock” when his company sponsored a female sailor. Why? As the only woman in the race, she received more coverage than her male counterparts. While I don’t condone coverage purely on gender, it is nonetheless a differentiator – and, naturally, does contribute to ROI.
There is one company that is putting its money where its mouth is and that has jumped in with both feet in leveraging competitive sports as a mechanism to engage with its consumers, customers and employees. SCA does not mean much to most people, but some of the brands of the Swedish corporation hold strong positions in the hygiene and personal care categories.
To mark its journey of change through divestments and acquisitions, SCA has taken on a multi-million-dollar sponsorship of an all-female team for the nine-month grueling Volvo Ocean Race, the second such global sponsorship of its kind. During the race’s nine global stops (in Spain, South Africa, the UAE, China, New Zealand, the US, Portugal, Holland and Sweden), SCA leverages an all-female crew to engage with its consumers – on-board racing at each port – through events at its pavilions and through traditional media and TV. Additionally, it has incorporated a strong grassroots education program with the UN on personal care and hygiene in areas of the world where those terms may be taboo or unprioritized. When presented with SCA’s female sailors, which include record breakers and Olympians, girls from all backgrounds cannot help but be inspired to understand not only their bodies, but, also, what their bodies are capable of.
And it is the message of women participating and, hopefully, conquering in arenas that are traditionally reserved for men that drives the appeal of SCA’s Volvo Ocean Race campaign. As a participant in the Abu Dhabi Volvo Ocean Race stopover in January 2014, it was the activation of this message that resonated with me and a multitude of other customers and guests. Both men and women were engaged in this stereotype-breaking campaign, knowing that while a commercial entity is behind it, its message is one of leveling the playing field for women everywhere.
Venturing into the role of women in society, let alone in sports, is not without its challenges in a region such as the Middle East; cultural nuances imply that the localization of the message is important, and that a one-size-fits-all approach in local activations does not work. Global corporations have to come to terms with these nuances the hard way at times, as budgets are always constrained. However, Arab women are increasingly open to challenging their status quo. It is the way their role within that revolution that needs to be well considered, and their perception levers, understood. With Arab women dominating the highest peaks in the world, it will not be long before they dominate the highest waves in the ocean.
It takes bold brands such as SCA to make ripples in the water and showcase how business and sports can mix to create, inspire and advance change while benefiting the bottom line.