Jul 12, 2021
Sport has a universal magic and is capable of transcending cultural, generational, and social barriers. 2021 has seen the return to our screens of major sports events, including the excitement of the UEFA European football championship and the world's most unusual Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Beyond the big games and names, sport is for everyone. The desire to move, run, jump, challenge our bodies, all while being socially connected to others, is ingrained deep in human nature. Sports are a positive outlet and should be available for the masses, not the chosen few. Sports can mean so much to people of all walks of life: from devout club supporters to grassroots basketball players, Sunday afternoon cricketers, morning joggers, and beyond.
Brands associated with all areas of sports must consider how their marketing campaigns include or exclude their audience—starting with their mission, values, and messaging. Unconscious bias is one of the issues that plagues sports marketing—resulting in messaging or communications that alienate large portions of a potentially engaged target audience. Another issue is where priorities are unclear and ill-considered.
Focusing on inclusion and cultural celebration should be at the heart of every sports marketer’s strategy. Not only will being more inclusive with your campaigns and outlook expand your brand’s audience, but it’s also the right thing to do: becoming accessible, not exclusionary.
Here we look at the vital importance of culture and inclusion in sports while looking at some inspirational examples of inclusive sports marketing.
Let’s dive in.
“If you are not constantly improving and learning, then you are going to be stuck and not progress.” Gareth Southgate, England manager
It’s good for everyone that the marketing game is starting to change and there are brands out there winning with messages of empowerment and cultural inclusivity. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Sporting apparel colossus Nike has long been a leader in promoting equality in sports.
Supporting cultural diversity, racial equality, women’s rights, and the LGBTQ+ community, the brand has developed a wealth of forward-thinking sports marketing campaigns over the years.
In 2017, Nike launched its #BETRUE initiative by celebrating voguing legend, Amazon Mother Leiomy Maldonado (referred to as ‘The Wonder Woman of Vogue’) to honor the LBGTQ+ community, featuring a cast of transgender icons.
Building on the campaign’s success, the brand’s 2019 #BETRUE campaign focused on being proud of who you are and connecting with yourself though the magic of sports.
With powerful messaging and captivating storytelling, Nike used the #BETRUE hashtag to propel the campaign, Nike earned healthy sales for its ‘Be True’ apparel range while showcasing its commitment to inclusivity in sports.
In a time where sports brands cannot—and should not—afford to be neutral when it comes to systematic or social exclusion, Nike notably also ran an ad that exposed America’s biggest issues to coincide with the start of the 2018/19 NFL season.
The campaign—driven by the #JustDoIt hashtag—kicked off with this Tweet from NFL star, Colin Kaepernick:
The sports star famously took the first-ever knee in public during a pre-match rendition of the US national anthem in protest against systemic racism. This bold, essential piece of social media messaging not only spoke volumes, but told the world where Nike stands when it comes to tackling injustice while promoting inclusion.
Despite some uproar surrounding the campaign, it yielded $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion rise in brand value, and a 31% boost in sales. Rightly so.
Takeaway: Investing in creating inspiring narratives that empower everyone to get involved in sports will engage a broader audience to your products or services. Showcasing your brand values is essential—and including people with voices and experiences that align with your brand messaging will make your campaigns more inclusive, and authentic.
Following the success of its empowering campaign ‘This Girl Can’—a campaign prompted by research that exposed poor attitudes towards women and sporting activity—Sports England collaborated with 15 UK health charities to launch a powerful initiative driven by real community voices.
Telling the emotionally-driven everyday tales of those living with a chronic or terminal illness, ‘We Are Undefeatable’ celebrates the universal power of sporting activity and how it can enrich the lives of people from every background or social standing.
"What became apparent was there was an untold story around the importance of physical activity for those living with long-term illnesses. We felt the need to tell honest stories about what it's really like living with a health condition, and how getting active can help."— Sarah Ruane, national strategy lead for health at Sport England
This all-encompassing sports marketing campaign is nothing short of breathtaking, offering people with chronic or terminal illnesses as well as those with mobility issues the inspiration to get active in a way that’s comfortable and accessible.
The multi-charity initiative received funding from the National Lottery, helping Sports England to amplify the campaign via social, print and TV media, supported by a dedicated website rich in advice and valuable content.
To deliver its messaging directly to its target audience, Sports England also developed ‘We Are Undefeatable’ support packs to GP (general doctors’) clinics across the UK.
Takeaway: A campaign that has created a positive social impact as well as a great deal of professional acclaim, this inclusive initiative demonstrates the power of delivering the accessibility of sports activity in a way that really resonates.
As an official partner of the Tokyo Olympics, pizza giant Papa Johns recently launched its ‘We Are Limitless’ campaign.
Working with three official Paralympic sports ambassadors—David Weir, Alfie Hewett and Alice Tai—the brand has pledged to raise £250,000 for ParalympicsGB by sharing first-hand stories of grit, determination, and rising above constant challenge.
Speaking about the initiative, ambassador, David Weir, explained:
“I’m thrilled to be an ambassador for Papa John’s as preparations continue for Tokyo.
As Paralympians, we are always looking to smash records and overcome adversity, and it’s great that Papa John’s is urging its customers to do the same, raising vital funds for Paralympic sport.”
Armed with an inspirational landing page and authentic messaging, the campaign has raised almost £72,000 so far—and with fresh donations coming through all the time—is more than likely to reach its target before the games’ end.
Takeaway: By telling stories of real power from real people with real experience, encouraging user-generated content (UGC), working towards a positive mission, and developing materials that offer real practical value, you will make your messaging inclusive and powerful in equal measures.
Exploring the importance of inclusion in sports marketing and looking at these inspirational examples, it’s clear that the road to progress starts from within.
By involving, and hiring, people from a more diverse selection of backgrounds, you will achieve campaign messaging that is not only far from exclusionary, but is authentic, and offers real value to real people.
As Nike demonstrated with their collaboration with Colin Kaepernick, when it comes to inclusivity in sports marketing, sitting just over the right side of the fence is not enough.
To create compelling campaign messaging that really resonates—and truly means something—you have to decide on a bold mission and let everyone know what you stand for. Diluted content translates as superficial and doesn’t help anyone—do you research and go for the marketing jugular. Which brings us onto our next point.
Identifying the issues that underpin exclusion and cultural tunnel vision in sports will empower you to refine your brand mission. When you do that, you will showcase the ubiquitous power of sport, rather than speaking to a select few.
To win at sports marketing the right way, it’s vital to listen and challenge your preconceived (or unconscious) notions about who certain games, products or services belong to. Speaking to the right influencers as well as people with real insights to share will form solid foundations for any inclusive sports marketing campaign.
Sports doesn’t just belong to the wealthy or the powerful. It belongs to the boys and girls kicking a football around the park; the neurodiverse looking for an energy-burning outlet, or the tired parent dusting off their old bicycle.
When you invest in authenticity and people, you will capture a wider imagination while promoting a brighter, more equal future. And, when you do that, everyone does indeed win. It’s time to put your best foot forward.
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“When everyone is included, everyone wins” Jesse Jackson