This year’s Women’s World Cup broke records and news stories. While the numbers speak for themselves, the drama of player narratives was lacking, argues Dark Horses planner Mark Lloyd. Sharing new research, he looks at how to invest in the stars of the future.

Now I think we all suspected it would be big, but 28.1 million tuning in to the BBC coverage is huge. More than double that of four years ago huge. 47%-of-the-population huge. 11m-more-than-voted-for-Brexit huge.

So viewing-wise, the people have spoken. It was a huge triumph. From driving the sport forward into the future, we can all be optimistic that this tournament was a watershed moment for the women’s game.

From our little microcosm there has been a lot of pontificating about whether it was a win from a brand perspective.

I read with great interest the points Graham Page from Kantar made on this very website last week in his extremely insightful piece about brands having dropped the ball

He said: “However, many have failed to capitalise by failing to define the relevance of their brand to the occasion. The heavy concentration on an important societal message meant that most of the spots failed to effectively advertise the brand.”

While the Kantar LinkNow tool (which was used to research 9 WWC ads) is a wonderful piece of kit, I think this fails to give us the whole picture.

With such a nascent and burgeoning sport and spectacle the payoff for the brand is being on the crest of that wave, at the forefront of the sport when it finally breaks.

Being seen by the public as one of the few brands who invested from the start, who pushed it at the beginning when it was still finding its shooting boots and drove grassroots investment like a dedicated parent driving their daughter to practice, is where success lies. That is much more effective than scoring high on a branding tracker with one ad.

As part of its campaign Lucozade has pledged to donate 90,000 minutes of free pitch-time for young women at sports centres all over the country. Now that is effectiveness. How much difference is that going to make to a girl’s life? In eight year’s time one of those girls could be the next Megan Rapinoe, when the WWC final gets 50+ million viewers.

In fact, according to research we carried out during the tournament, 63% (rising to 73% amongst 18-34 year olds) said they would be more interested in women’s football if they knew more about female players and that they wanted brands to be the ones to tell these stories.

Every good story needs interesting characters. Heroes and villains. Those to cheer and those to jeer. Sports have mass appeal not just because of the action on the pitch, but the storylines off it.

However, this is where I believe brands actually dropped the ball. As well as the huge viewership, the number of personalities bursting into the spotlight and the of stories that crashed their way into the news agenda was enormous in comparison to four years ago.

There was a real desire from people to know what was happening and who was doing what - and brands could have been front and centre on taking these stories and turning them into cultural moments.

What's more, this can help address the brand attribution problem which Kantar highlighted as a shortcoming of this summer's campaigns. With more variance and depth in the stories being told, brands have more opportunities to find ways to leverage the sport in a way that is relevant to them.

Here are three ways they can do it:

  • Creating long term campaigns that don’t just think about short term gain, but invest in the stars of the future who will create the new narratives around the game
  • Move away from the generic empowerment images and stock montages, instead building communications around women’s football that carries its own sense of purpose and identity.
  • Bring these fascinating narratives and stars to life, into popular culture. This could be by backing them (creatively and financially) in their social channels or being reactive to those crucial happenings in the game and producing quick fire content around them. A cheeky challenger brand missed a huge opportunity to get on the back of the tea-gate after the England/USA semi final.

The numbers speak for themselves now, but the campaigns need to make more noise if culturally if they are really going to engage.