WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo speaks to Rexona’s Kathryn Swallow about sponsoring the  Women’s World Cup and how the sponsorship will extend beyond the tournament itself to impact gender equality and bias in sports.

WARC: This is the first time the brand is sponsoring FIFA Women’s World Cup. How do you see brands changing their approach to this year’s tournament?

Kathryn Swallow: Historically, sponsorship was almost like a badging exercise. You put your brand logo and hope that you sell more products. But the industry has progressed in the sense that we are now using sponsorship as a vehicle to drive change.

This is a huge leap forward. We’ve definitely seen a big shift this year but it is clearly just the beginning. More people are realising that there is a huge swathe of girls that don’t have the confidence to even get into football.

There are various marketing levers brands can tap into to drive change, so why choose to sponsor the FIFA Women’s World Cup? What criteria do you look at?

For Unilever, everything starts with our purpose. In the case of Rexona, our purpose is to inspire the confidence in everyone to move more. So if we’re doing a landscaping exercise on who can we partner with to drive change, we naturally look to the sports industry. 

After brand purpose, the next criterion is scale.

Rexona can’t do it alone, which is why we need big partners. FIFA has huge global scale. So if we want to drive systemic change, then collaborating with an entity of that scale would enable us both to move forward faster.

Aside from purpose and scale, are there any other criteria to consider?

A genuine set of shared values and goals is critical because otherwise, the partnerships will not go far. For this Unilever deal, we’re not just partnering with FIFA for their scale, but because we wanted a partner that genuinely wants to drive this change for women’s football.

This is a mission that goes beyond our FIFA sponsorship. That’s why we have a wave of NGOs we work with that run grassroots programs in communities to help girls have this confidence and get into football.

Shared commitment is the next layer. We could each have great values but be unable to do anything together. That’s what we have been able to get with FIFA – a commitment that there are not enough girls in football. It’s as simple as that. And together, we’ll be able to enable that over the course of the contract.

While brand purpose can be a divisive topic, brand commitment, especially a shared one with our partners, is where the conversation needs to evolve to.

I read an online quote that said we should stop associating supporting women’s sports with “doing the right thing” and more as a “wise return on investment”. Would you agree?

It’s a tension that many people have. Yes, we are a business but we’re in a business to make a positive impact on society whilst selling products. We can do one without the other but that wouldn’t make us a purposeful organisation. It’s critical that it is both because the bigger we make our brands, the more good we can do.

If supporting women’s sport is an investment, how is Rexona measuring the success of these efforts?

There are hard metrics such as sales and purchase intent. On the brand side, we measure whether Rexona is a brand that consumers want to associate with. We specifically measure how this FIFA affiliation will change how consumers feel about the brand. There’s also reach and the amount of earned media we get back.

But there’s also a slightly longer-term metric and macro goal that goes beyond the tournament. Rexona has a commitment to get millions of young people into our Breaking Limits program which aims to reach underserved communities around the world and give them the confidence to get into the movement. Our partnership with FIFA allows us to tangibly get 3 million girls into football.

How can brands help to create a more equitable women’s sport economy? For example, in what way should sponsorship be the same or different from the way men’s sports have been activated?

The approach is similar in the sense that we’re starting from the space of our brand purpose and how to leverage partnerships to do good. But the difference is that we need to start with gender role models. Simply having a football club is not enough.

The industry needs people that girls are going to connect with so that they can see themselves getting into that space. Building out the right ambassadors who can be beacons for this is critical. Yes, you need the sports team and the players but you need to build an ecosystem of people that believe in it too. 

In our Breaking Limits program, we’ve created new modules which are really focused on gender equality, equity and changing the bias in the sports industry. Our modules are aimed at educating coaches – everything from the language they use to how they select their teams.

So there’s a stronger educational requirement for growing women’s sport than for men’s? 

Yes, but we should also not underestimate the aspect of excitement. Men’s football has a lot of energy and excitement and behind that, we need to ignite in women’s football too. That’s why it’s important to build those ambassadors.

If I go back to the first thing you said about how sponsorship has changed, is it right to say that sponsoring women’s sport can’t be a badging exercise because there’s nothing to badge yet?

Yes, I agree. I’m surprised why there aren’t more people leaning in. It’s a blank canvas, which is a scary thing to say on something as big as football, but we’re barely scratching the surface yet.

How have the changes in the digital landscape provided new opportunities to grow women’s sports in ways that weren’t possible before?

Digital is allowing us to find our own voice and role in the tournament and in the conversation. It’s not one-way traffic where we’re just on transmit mode. We’re joining a conversation which actually allows us to learn and have a dialogue with consumers. If we’re trying to drive systemic change, being where people are and being able to have a conversation is so critical.

What’s the number one thing brands need to stop and start doing in order to grow the women’s sports market, whether for FIFA or beyond?

Stop thinking men first. Start with thinking “women as well”. Even if you look at the sportswear industry, those products are designed for men’s bodies, which is a huge topic on its own. That happens because the industry tends to think men first when it comes to sport.

Secondly, it’s to invest in both the grassroots and elite level.

Elite sport needs investment to keep these women thriving and competing at the highest level, and the grassroots is how you’ll keep bringing girls in.