How This Girl Can has inspired women to be more active

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has inspired 2.8 million women to be more active in the year since its launch, according to figures released this week. We spoke to director Tanya Joseph about maintaining the campaign’s momentum, and the role that photography, copywriting, social media and brand partnerships have played in its success

This Girl Can launched with a film and series of print ads (created by FCB Inferno) which offered a refreshingly honest portrayal of exercise. There were no unrealistic images of models or athletes looking immaculate at the finish line and no mention of losing weight or being “beach body ready”. Instead, women of various ages and body shapes were pictured taking part in a range of sports – from running to swimming and basketball – and looking sweaty, red-faced and exhausted (but happy) while doing it. Images were accompanied by some defiant and funny taglines, from ‘I kick balls. Deal with it’ to ‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’.

The campaign was created in response to research that revealed a startling gender gap in exercise levels across the UK (two million fewer 14-40-year-old women than men playing sport regularly). Research also found that many women were put off exercise by a fear of being judged – either for their appearance, their ability or choosing to spend time on themselves.

In the year since it was launched, the campaign has proved a huge success: Sport England announced yesterday that it has inspired 2.8 million women to do more physical activity (figures are based on a sample survey of 1,000 women, in which 40% said they had done more exercise as a direct result of seeing the campaign), and the result of Sport England’s Active People Survey, published in December, show that the number of women being active for at least 30 minutes each week has increased by 148,000. The This Girl Can film has now been viewed 37 million times online and there have been 660,000 tweets using the campaign’s official hashtag.

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On social media, too, it has built a huge following – its Facebook page has over 325,000 likes and features hundreds of comments from women sharing stories of how This Girl Can has inspired them to exercise. I always felt really embarrassed being one of the only ladies who lifted weights in the gym. Then #thisgirlcan put such a positive spin on exercise and taught me its okay to break the social norms exercise is for everyone regardless of gender or how you look [sic]. Now I can happily squat more than my body weight and I don’t care about any funny looks I get!” read one post left yesterday.

As director of business partnerships Tanya Joseph points out, the campaign’s empowering message and its authenticity (a term that is often over-used in advertising) have been key to its success.

“What we’re trying to get across is very honest and true and because we’ve had that authenticity – we’ve not been tempted to wander off and turn it into something more shiny and sexy – it’s been incredibly powerful,” she explains. “Women believe us, and when they look around and see they’re not alone [in feeling a fear of judgment when it comes to exercise], it gives them confidence.”

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The campaign’s inclusive message is evident in photography – the women pictured were scouted in the street and are not professional models or actors. Images, shot by Adam Hinton and Charlie Campbell, have not been retouched or manipulated.

“We agreed from the get go that we wanted a campaign that wouldn’t airbrush women … and that turned out to be really disruptive, which is a little bit sad,” says Joseph. “For the first time in a really long time … we were seeing images of women that look like people we know. We celebrated women who were tall, short, 14 to 44. Some of them are really good at what they do and others aren’t good at all, but we celebrated the fact that they were doing something. We weren’t saying you need to have a certain level of skill or look a certain way,” she adds.

While images felt honest, however, they are also polished and well shot, creating a strong aesthetic for the campaign. “We wanted a realistic, honest image of what you look like when you’re exercising, but we still wanted high quality and production values,” says Joseph.

As well as using images on billboards, print ads and social media, Sport England has made a toolkit available to download from its website, which features realistic images of women doing sports from table tennis to boxing. 

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In copywriting, Joseph says the aim was to strike a balance between delivering a serious message and avoiding anything “po-faced.” The use of the term girl led to some criticism, particularly when accompanying photos of women in their 50s and 60s (though had proved hugely popular in Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ campaign), but on the whole, its confident tone of voice has proved a hit with the public.

“We wanted lines to have a sassiness, but we also had to make sure [the copy] would resonate, so we did a lot of talking to women and testing out lines,’ says Joseph. “Everything we put out has been tested by a group of people beyond the team working on it.”

One of the most popular lines in audience research was  ‘My game face has lipstick on it’, which is used to accompany an image of a woman playing netball. “We thought it might just be netballers … or older women [that liked it] but everyone responded to it really well. They liked her attitude, the look on her face and the line that went with it,” says Joseph.

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Throughout the year, Sport England has used social media to build momentum following the launch of the campaign. Two people work full-time to manage its Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Twitter accounts, posting encouraging messages and interacting with followers. Over the past few months, the team has used images uploaded by followers to create some reassuring and funny messages (pictures include an image of someone falling over while skiing, with the line ‘If at first you don’t succeed, freestyle’) and used hashtags to encourage more women to share their own sporting stories (one hashtag, #myreasons, resulted in some heartfelt responses from women who feel exercise has boosted their confidence or improved their lives).

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Imagery posted on social media by This Girl Can

“We knew we needed to have an active social media team engaging with our community, and we needed to make sure we were really clear about the tone of voice – when we’d get involved, what we’d talk about and the kind of language we’d use,” says Joseph. “Our community is really self-sufficient though, so often, we just ask question or start a conversation and they’ll take over.” On Facebook, followers have used the campaign page to share their own sporting achievements – from overcoming injuries and low-self esteem to raising money for good causes through charity runs – and encourage others who might be afraid of being judged.

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This Girl Can’s website features a directory of sports and lists the benefits of doing them

“I’ve worked on lots of campaigns in the past where people wanted to share things about themselves – but with [This Girl Can], people are prepared to share not just good things, but things that haven’t gone so well, or things that have been difficult for them,” adds Joseph. “They don’t do it in a shout-y way, but to inspire and encourage others.”

Last week, This Girl Can launched a range of clothing and activewear with M&S – a collection Joseph says wasn’t planned, but created in response to popular demand. (This Girl Can produced 200 t-shirts for the campaign’s launch, with spares donated to rugby, football and rowing teams, but began to receive emails daily from women keen to get their hands on one).

The collection follows the release of a t-shirt in July, which sold out in 36 hours, and another which sold out in September. The new range includes everything from yoga pants to socks and profits from sales will be re-invested in projects that support women being active, says Joseph.

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A Facebook post from This Girl Can marking the first anniversary of the campaign’s launch

“Lots of people came to us when we launched and said we wanted to be a brand partner, but we’ve been really careful about who we work with because it needs to have value,” she says. “M&S seemed like a good partner to work with because they have an ethical supply chain and they have stores all over England, so we knew we could make t-shirts available to lots of people for an affordable price.”

Sport England has also teamed up with Sport Relief and will be encouraging people to raise funds for the event as part of the This Girl Can community. “Sport Relief seemed like a natural partner to work with … we know a lot of our community are motivated by doing cause-related acitivies, so we’ll be going out into the community to talk about signing up to do activities for Sport Relief as a member of This Girl Can,” Joseph explains. 

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Facebook posts from This Girl Can encourage followers to try out new activities, from winter sports to yoga

The success of This Girl Can has surpassed all of the team’s expectations: “My ambition was to raise awareness among women that they are not alone in their fear of judgment – but none of us anticipated that it would actually inspire them to go out and do something,” says Joseph. The challenge now is to build on this momentum: in 2016, Joseph says the campaign will focus on encouraging people who might have given up sport to get back into it, without making them feel ashamed or embarrassed for taking a break.

“We know very few people have an unbroken physical career. For most people, it’s typical that you’ll do some exercise, then stop and then start again. This might be for lots of reasons – you’ve been injured or you got bored of something -but what we need to do is encourage people to make the gaps between those periods shorter and to make people feel comfortable about trying something new, while making sure they dont feel like a failure for having stopped. The challenge for us now is to move it on, but maintain the same tone of voice and momentum,” she adds.

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