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Case Study: Sport England #ThisGirlCan

In January 2015 a new campaign for Sport England dropped. The idea was to create something that would empower women to go out and exercise, and feel absolutely unstoppable doing it.  

Sport England had identified that there was a big gender gap with women exercising. There were two million fewer women exercising regularly than men. In Europe we rank third for male participation, but 19th for female. Sweden have both genders in the top five, so it is possible to bring the gap much closer.

In a nutshell: the task was to get more women aged 14-40 exercising regularly (they define that as 1 session of 30 minutes exercise per week).

This wasn't a spur of the moment campaign or something that came about on the back of a bit of idea spitballing. Sport England really done their homework, with over five years’ worth of research into the target market.  According to Strategist Nicola Willison from agency FCB Inferno, this initially led the team down various avenues that were quite obvious. In addition to this research, they needed real women to actually tell us what they thought about each approach, so as to determine whether it was right or wrong. Not only to make sure that the creative was on the right line but that the insight was right.

"We looked at the barriers to exercise, and found that there were many, and that they were all mixed. What made it tricky was that the barriers were not exclusive to any one demographic. It was only when we took a step back we realised that actually the thing that really did unify was the fear of judgement. Whether that was a fear from PE 14 years ago or a fear from last week when someone looked at you in the gym a bit funny. Once we realised that, we all knew it was right. We felt it."

It was the unanimous positive reaction from women in focus groups that marked a massive turning point. "It’s not very often you get someone give a very gut reaction and get excited about something. Normally it’s quite difficult for people to get their heads around a board showing a concept. With the initial TV ad concept they were leaning forward and saying 'Oh I love that line', 'Yeah I want to be that person', and 'That’s so me'. That's the first time I’ve done qualitative research and had that."

For Nicola, the difference between desk research and actually talking to people was enormous. "It adds a whole other layer. You can’t pick up on the little things in facts. We couldn’t have written what our audience were saying to us. One girl actually said, 'If everyone else here feels judged then who’s actually doing the judging?'. What was interesting was that when we discussed this, women had experienced explicit judgement but didn’t realise that they weren’t the only ones feeling judged. You don’t get those insights unless you’re talking to someone."

Starting conversations allowed the team to learn a lot and enabled them to test and learn what was right and what was wrong. Reading people's body language and reactions was key to see if they engaged with an idea or not. Sport England didn’t just want to know how many of a focus group liked it, they wanted to know the semantics of it, what words they were using, how they expressed they liked it. They didn’t want their research just regurgitated back to them.

The strengths of the campaign lay in the ability to empathise and really align itself with the women that made up its audience. But how easy was it to create a campaign for women, when two thirds of the team responsible were men? For Copywriter Simon Cenamor and Art Director Ray Chan took the challenge and, no pun intended, ran with it.

“At first it was a little bit tricky. But in the same way that it’s a little bit tricky to work on something for pensioners. Or anything else that you’re not the target audience for”, says Cenamor. “To begin with you have to get into it and get a feel for the right way of doing things or the right way of saying things, but it’s like that on anything you work on”.

When it came to the film in particular, working with Kim Gehrig, the director, really helped. Allegedly Kim would come in and say, 'I want to get right in there on the bums!'. “I felt that maybe if it was a guy directing it certain things might have felt a bit sexualised so there was a certain sensitivity that came from Kim doing it. But it was never a case of it having to be a woman director, a woman photographer and an all woman team. It was about having the right people”.

"I never really thought about it" Chan adds, "I think listening to what the research and the women were saying was pretty key to help us empathise".

“Early on we spent too much time trying to visualise and highlight the barriers, but then we realised that we needed to be focusing on the people that were overcoming these barriers, and turn it around to be positive. We had a few ideas and we knew we wanted a spread of women but it wasn’t til we just went out and started street casting that it all really came together. Our Casting Director stood outside leisure centres and chased women through the park”, remembers Cenamor.

Although the campaign was about real women and their stories, it wasn’t until the team met the actors, that they realised how the campaign was actually real too. “This wasn’t reading research on paper any more, so we wanted to give them the space they deserved. It was never a box ticking exercise, we just wanted women who embodied the spirit of the campaign. And that’s who’s in it.”

The powerful copy of #ThisGirlCan is right at the heart of the campaign. Rooting itself in the idea of repeated ‘mantras’ for example “if you were out running and you’re thinking ‘I’m a gazelle. I’m a gazelle.’ Cenamor tells us how the team thought about them as a way of “demonstrating with a line which barrier these women are smashing through or overcoming when they’re out there doing it. We imagined them to be almost like t-shirt slogans. We had a few, but then a lot of them were written based on the castings. So for example the young boxer girl, Skyla, came in with fake eyelashes and fake nails. Her line ended up being ‘Under these gloves is a beautiful manicure’."

This was written purely from meeting her and knowing what she’s about. The copy of the campaign was about embracing the way these women feel. You might take it and flower it up a bit but they're 100% true to the women. They’re all based on their attitudes towards exercise, and it was nice to champion that through the copy.

The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive, sparking a lot of opinions and reactions. The team had no idea to what extent it would be received. “We thought people would like it, but we didn’t think it would go as crazy as it’s gone”, said Nicola. “One woman sent us a facebook message to say that she listens to the Missy Elliot track every morning to remind herself of the ad and motivate herself. When you hear that kind of thing you think, we’ve really done something”.

“It’s really hard to motivate yourself to get out there, but for women to be doing it because of this advert is amazing. There was a tweet from one girl who was on a run and she saw one of the posters at a bus stop and it made her run even faster.”  For Ray Chan, this was what made it all worth it. The fact that #ThisGirlCan isn’t a clever commercial push, but it has the potential to create real, positive change. “We’re not selling a product, we’re promoting behaviour change. So to see that in action is completely incredible”.

On the first night that the ad aired, the team were just watching the tweets come in, completely overwhelmed by the incredible response. “I have to say that getting tweets through from girls saying ‘I went for a run this morning #ThisGirlCan’ or 'I’ve been out of exercising for two years but this advert made me go do it' is amazing”, adds Cenamor. “The few people that have had a pop at it, have actually done it a favour because the people who like it have defended it.

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

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