Case study: How 'This girl can' got 1.6 million women exercising

'This girl can' by Sport England and FCB Inferno

Sports participation in the UK suffers from a significant gender gap; 2m fewer 14- to 40-year-old women than men play sport regularly.

The problem

Sports participation in the UK is suffering from a significant gender gap. Research carried out by Sport England reveals that by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly. Two million fewer 14- to 40-year-old women take part in sport when compared with men, despite the fact that 75%  say they want to be more active.

The insight

36% of the least-active schoolgirls agree that they feel like their body is on show in PE lessons and that makes them like PE less

The "This girl can" campaign is based on a powerful insight: that the fear of judgement by others is the primary barrier holding women back from participating in sport. This fear covers concerns over their appearance, ability, or the simple fact they are choosing to spend time on themselves, rather than on their families. Tackling this fear was seen as key to tackling the gender gap.

Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, explains: "Before we began this campaign, we looked very carefully at what women were saying about why they felt sport and exercise were not for them, Some of the issues, like time and cost, were familiar, but one of the strongest themes was a fear of judgement."

Sport England’s research reveals that, from an early age, appearance is a concern for women when it comes to exercise; 36% of the least-active schoolgirls agree that they feel like their body is on show in PE lessons and that makes them like PE less. Furthermore, one woman in every four says they "hate the way I look when I exercise or play sport", and women are more likely than men to say they aren’t confident about their body when doing sport.

According to Price, across the board, women identify with the fear of not being "good enough" in some way; whether not being skilled enough, fit enough, or the right size. Sport England’s insight team also identified that women feel alone in this fear, instead of viewing it as the universal truth that it is.

Ability is also an ingrained concern, with more than a quarter of girls saying they don’t feel they have the skills to do well in sport. Women also tend to take a more conservative view about the level of their abilities than men and are particularly negative about their running speed, whereas men over-estimate their hand-eye co-ordination; more than half of men think they are better than average.

81% of mothers with children under 15 prioritise spending time with their families over getting fit

The insight team also identified mothers as a core audience for the campaign; the research reveals that while many mums would like to exercise, the fear of being judged for putting themselves first is a barrier. A massive 81% of mothers with children under 15 prioritise spending time with their families over getting fit, while 44% of mums feel guilty if they spend time on themselves. In some cases men have ‘hobbies’ which are to be encouraged, while some women instead engage in ‘me time’, which can easily be dismissed as something of an ‘indulgence’.

Research and insight was at the heart of the campaign, and came from Sport England’s internal team, its creative agency, FCB Inferno, and proprietary findings from the ongoing ‘Active People Survey’, its ‘She Moves’ research and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation’s (WSFF) ‘Changing the Game for Girls’ report.

The process

Sport England spent nine months on research and talking to a range of stakeholders as diverse as big organisations, such as the FA and football clubs, to new mothers.

Sport England then invited the six creative agencies on the Crown communications roster to pitch for the business; five of which responded with initial ‘creds’.

"Having spent a lot of time agency-side myself I know you get the best out of a pitch if you spend a lot of time talking to the people involved. It isn’t just about the 45-minute presentation," explains Sport England’s director of business partnerships, Tanya Joseph. FCB was head and shoulders above the competition and won the brief. Subsequently, Blue Rubicon was appointed to handle PR and Carat to the media-planning and buying brief.

From the outset, research was at the heart of the process, and FCB invested significant time in studying the 600-page summary of Sport England’s research. FCB quickly realised that this would be a project based on ‘campaigning’ as opposed to a stand-alone single campaign.

"When we hit upon this insight we developed a manifesto, rather than a traditional creative brief. The reason being that we knew we had to create a powerful emotion and the creative team needed a strong strategic springboard," explains Sharon Jiggins, managing director of FCB Inferno.

In line with this insight, FCB created a manifesto, as opposed to a strapline, to guide the creative process. The manifesto was: "Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something."

Right from the start, the relationship between client and agency was exceptionally transparent and the agency was encouraged to push the boundaries. From a practical perspective the campaign was tightly managed with in-house management from Sport England and an all-agency weekly meeting.

The plan

Early in the creative process FCB Inferno invited Sport England to meet the ads’ director, Kim Gehrig. She laid out her vision and focus on ‘street-casting’ of ordinary women from parks, gyms, swimming pools and football pitches all over the country.

The campaign insight was born from the team’s dedication to connecting with the very real fears of real women, and it was these women who formed the lynchpin of the campaign. Not only did they star in the above-the-line campaign, they became grassroots heroes inspiring other women to exercise.

"Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox" and "I kick balls, deal with it" are among the hard-hitting lines used in the campaign to spearhead a change in attitudes. These taglines addressed real, tangible fears identified in the insight; such as the fact that 48% of girls say that getting sweaty is not feminine.

The action

The first TV ad for "This girl can" broke on ITV on 12 January 2015, and an initial investment in primetime TV and outdoor advertising provided the foundation for building a vibrant social-media community, with an appeal to women to get off the couch and get active at its core. Grace Monksfield Hamming, a student from London who appeared in the campaign with the mantra "I’m slow but I’m lapping everyone on the couch", hit a particular nerve with consumers, generating significant buzz on social media.

The creation of a social-media community on Twitter and Facebook was encouraged by a tailored algorithm that sent encouraging tweets to women who were themselves tweeting about exercise or fear of hitting the gym.

Commercial partners were also a growing part of the campaign, and in January this year, Sport England teamed up with Marks & Spencer to launch a branded exercise-clothing collection for women. The range includes leggings, t-shirts, ‘hoodies’ and sports bras. The range was showcased in store and on the M&S website using pictures from real women from the "This girl can" community.

In addition, "This girl can" recently teamed up with Sport Relief, using specially adapted campaign mantras, and women inspiring other people to get involved in fundraising. In addition, women who were participating could create their own "This girl can" posters to show everyone what they were doing to raise money.

The budget

To date, £10m has been invested in the campaign. This includes creative, media-planning and buying, PR activity, social-media management and campaign management.

The challenges

Changing consumer behaviour is one of the fundamental challenges of marketing, and tackling fears that have become so ingrained into the female psyche is no mean feat.

This was a complex campaign with multiple stakeholders and government bodies. In fact, the campaign has more than 8000 supporters – these range from small local sports clubs and individual fitness classes right through to major sporting organisations, such as the FA. Managing so many stakeholders posed a significant challenge.

The Sport England team quickly realised that to engage with so many different parties successfully would demand a collaborative approach. The team therefore created an online toolkit, which enabled stakeholders to use the "This girl can" branding and logos for their own marketing campaigns.

The results

Here is a campaign that is genuinely changing consumer behaviour and inspiring women to make a positive difference to their lives. As a result of the campaign, 1.6m women have started exercising. Moreover, the number of women playing sport and being active is increasing faster than the number of men.

The gender gap between men and women who exercise regularly has begun to narrow – from 1.78m to 1.73m – a sign that the campaign’s approach of focusing on the target audience as individual consumers is starting to pay dividends.

The increase in the number of women playing sport has driven an overall increase in the number of people regularly playing sport. This stood at 15.74m in the 12 months to the end of September 2015, up by 245,200 compared with the previous figures published in June. Overall, there has been an increase of 1.65m since London secured the rights to host the Olympic Games.

The 90-second "This girl can" spot has been watched more than 37m times on Facebook and YouTube alone. The campaign has an active social-media community of 500,000 and there have been 660,000 tweets about it.

The next stage

As the campaign moves into its next stage, Sport England will be working closely with a handful of different sporting bodies to continue to drive participation. A continued emphasis on insight will allow the campaign to place a greater focus on individual sports that are successfully engaging more women.

Sport England’s Joseph explains: "I don’t want the campaign to have ‘second-novel syndrome’ and we will evolve it without it feeling like we are re-treading old ground."

The government framework and procurement guidelines mean there will inevitably need to be another pitch. However, the infrastructure of the campaign, and its strong links to 8000 sporting bodies, individuals and organisations, is well established, while the active social-media community has made spreading the word much easier. This in turn means the need to invest significant sums in above-the-line advertising has reduced.

The inside track

Sport England’s "This girl can" activity is one of the most powerful sporting campaigns in living memory; yet the marketing team behind the campaign does not have a sporting background. In the style of a challenger brand, Joseph, a self-styled reluctant runner with a political background (she is co-chair of the women’s rights and equality charity The Fawcett Society), revolutionised how the sports industry talks to women, by simply believing what women actually say.

"The sports industry has always looked at the reasons why women weren’t participating in sport as simply excuses, but we really took a step back and listened," she explains. According to Joseph, the sport industry is dominated by people who love sport so they simply can’t understand the barriers which exist among people who don’t.


As Sport England’s first-ever consumer facing campaign the team was anxious that women didn’t see the ads as simply more ‘preachy’ government communication. In fact, internally, the team held real reservations about putting the Sport England logo onto the campaign for fear it would dilute the message or provoke a consumer backlash. In reality, the fact there was no commercial punchline to the campaign resonated strongly with consumers.

"There was this moment at the end of the focus groups where we asked consumers ‘who do you think this message is from?’ and people got very hostile when they thought it could be someone trying to sell them expensive trainers," explains Joseph.

As this altruism was seen as such a key factor in the success of the campaign, Sport England has trodden carefully when it comes to commercial partnerships. While Joseph says that these partnerships will be key in future, she reveals that brands from myriad unlikely sectors, such as car-hire brands, have approached the team to get involved with little thought to how they can actually help encourage women to participate in sport.

From influence to understanding

Despite the campaign’s obvious success, Joseph has fundamentally shifted its parameters. She says: "When we first started, I had a linear view of how we would influence consumers: we would raise awareness, change attitudes and women would take action. We achieved 100% exposure in our target audience and 2.8m women who have seen the campaign have taken part in sport as a result. These are huge numbers. Yet what is interesting is that attitudes haven’t changed, that fear of judgement is still there, but what we are doing is helping women manage that fear and do it anyway."

This shift has changed the way Sport England views the activity. Clearly, when fear is so entrenched, it will take more than one organisation to challenge these well-worn assumptions, and Joseph believes more needs to be done to address this across the board.

According to Joseph, while many in the marketing industry talk about the importance of honesty and authenticity, very few brands are actually following through. "‘This girl can’ has proved it is possible to have a beautiful campaign with high production values featuring real women," she says. "You don’t need to make women feel bad about themselves to sell products or change behaviour."

Marketing for good

The fact that it has taken a government body to remind the sporting industry that perfection doesn’t sell is a telling reminder of the chasm between the reality and rhetoric surrounding authenticity and honesty in marketing. While many commercial brands may lack the underlying relevancy or integrity to spearhead such a campaigning message it provides a telling reminder of the importance of true insight.

Here is a campaign that not only gives us a glimpse into sheer possibilities afforded by marketing produced when people care passionately about what they are doing, but one that also reminds us that the strength of real people can be more motivational and aspirational than a sporting superstar or heavily airbrushed celebrity.


8000 supporters for the campaign, from the FA to small local sports clubs

Gender gap between men and women exercising regularly has fallen from 1.78m to 1.73m

37m Facebook and YouTube views of 90-second "This girl can" spot

500,000 members of active "This girl can" social-media community

660,000 tweets about #ThisGirlCan


Sport England ‘Active People Survey’

Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation ‘Changing the Game’


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