World Cup 2014 panel

Gender stereotypes leave World Cup marketers missing a trick

Not just in Brazil to dress up. JeonHeon-Kyun/EPA

I’ve tried to ignore the patronising viral “Rules for Women during the World Cup” tweets, I am ignoring Facebook offers to go to a spa for “girly bubbles” to escape the football. But the idea of actually watching football on a big screen, whilst being pampered and with a glass of something cool? Now that almost sounded tempting for a moment – until I reached the part about this being so that I could “ogle footballers’ legs”.

That is when I felt the urge to write something about the appalling gender stereotypes which seem to have beset the world’s marketers. This offends me as a feminist and a marketing expert in pretty much equal measure.

How, I wonder, have major commercial organisations, media publications, with market intelligence and smart employees, as well as a range of smaller businesses, which seem to be targeting women on the basis of antiquated gender stereotypes, failed to notice that women like football too?

Female football fans

I recently reflected on the fact that football is a participation sport and played by more women than men in countries such as the USA. Women’s football is also growing in England where 1.7m women play football – against the trend of declining participation in the men’s game – and in many other parts of the world.

If we consider the growth in football support by women who are every bit as excited by the World Cup as our male counterparts, then this just shows poor understanding of the football market and the motivations of a significant proportion of the global football fanbase. It is also, of course, deeply irritating in its use of stereotypes which, were they racial or national, might see a much bigger backlash.

So why is the communication strategy going so badly wrong for these types of organisations and outlets?

Yawn. Elements Medi Spa

It would appear that segmentation (the way marketers identify target groups) is being done on the basis of demographics and other descriptive variables rather than on “benefit segmentation”. This has been the marketers’ tool for determining the spending decisions of different groups of customers ever since Russell Haley wrote about toothpaste buying habits back in 1968. He examined whether it was for taste, whiteness of teeth, avoiding cavities, and so on. Then, and only then, should we consider who, what and where the customers are that should be targeted with our products.

Like many other aspects of customer or fan analysis, World Cup support and engagement by fans is very obviously no “one size fits all” type of process. And it is absolutely critical to begin by asking Haley’s “why” question. Why do people engage with a tournament such as the World Cup and maybe too, why not? My “why” was about family and my father supporting and playing football, childhood memories and family loyalty.

Now maybe – and I can only assume that the market intelligence of those promoting “laddish” messages or offering “girlie” alternatives, suggests this – there is still a majority of those who engage with the World Cup, to whatever extent and for whatever reason, who turn out to be male.

But I’d be sure that the proportion of those who are female is large and growing.

So ignore us at your peril. Patronise us at your own risk. Use stereotypes of women’s lack of interest in football and the World Cup at the risk of making yourself look like antiquated misogynists. And attempt ill-conceived marketing communication strategies, which not only miss their target and waste your marketing spend, but actively irritate a good proportion of the football supporting market, at the risk of being pilloried across social media.

And as to the spa offer, which kindly offered a whole mixed batch of women, including female England international players, the option of either going to their spa to avoid football or to watch football on a big screen in order to ogle players’ legs whilst sipping champagne, well I’m half tempted to turn up to see how all these people with diverse interests and motivations could possibly enjoy being put into the same space together. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

But then I’ll be too busy watching the football. And, at risk of upsetting the stereotypes even more, I may well have a beer in my hand.

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