We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing reputation management – the day-to-day management of your brand that informs the public what you stand for (or what you don’t stand for).
We’ve spoken before that reputation management isn’t about one of gestures, skywriting messages or even a blitz of advertising, it’s about caring constantly for your brand, caring about every tweet, every word, taking the time to understand your stakeholders.
It’s been roughly one year since we started talking about marketing and publicity for AFLW, round about the time our PR firm received a glittering press release that James Brayshaw was commentating on the EJ Whitten Legends game, but didn’t get anything about the Womens State of Origin game.
Since then, it’s been well documented that the day-to-day reputation management of AFLW from AFLHQ has been derisory and apathetic, the competition treated like a burden, a problem to solve.
When we started writing about the travails of AFLW marketing back in the day, we had specific marketing goals, those goals around things like personalization, niche experiences and specifically tailor apps around teams and players.
It quickly became clear as Season 2 unfolded those goals weren’t happening – in fact, the official marketing for the season got no further than a lacklustre “Dare to Create slogan”, some skywriting, a W on a wall and an ad campaign which reheated the usual “barrier busting, glass ceiling shattering women” mantra of Season 1.
By the time Carlton and Collingwood had finished Game 1 and the league crumbled in the face of the fearsome demographic that is Herald Sun letter writers (and commercial television pressure) they lost their marketing purpose, and spent the rest of the year lurching into crisis.
We’ve covered that before of course, the lighting budget, the memo, the Missy Higgins rain out – it wasn’t the most pleasant of seasons to document from a PR point of view, a genuine marketing disaster.
While there are still growing frustrations with AFLW marketing (even launching the AFLW season with a power point rather than a video presentation felt frustrating and careless) there are positives going into the new season, if people are willing to learn and grow.
Season 3 gives a chance to hit the marketing reset button and tap into the humor, passion and alternative media support that is out there.
AFLW season 2 was gripped by a sense of promotional insecurity – the league was almost apologetic for its own existence.
Such is their promotional insecurity and lack of vision, that AFLW can hit a marketing reset simply by portraying far more confidence in its own product that it did last season.
Simply by promoting players over “that vision thing”, simply by creating more content, simply by getting their own players onto individual podcasts, and simply by believing in what they are selling.
Marketing womens sports isn’t especially difficult, but it does need to have a sense of self-confidence against THOSE male sports fans who will use social media platforms to enforce their own biases.
Stripping everything back in a marketing sense, the two AFLW marketing avenues to pursue this season are emphasising role models (for their play, not for their barrier busting qualities – that trope is played out) and working with AFLW clubs to support their own individual marketing strategies.
Neither of those things require major budgetary input – in fact they can work together, given simply having small girls meet their heroes is a relatively easy marketing goal to capitalize on.
We spoke last year about how the league should have taken every opportunity to show girls getting autographs at the end of games, every photo of someone meeting their heroes, and how easy that is to showcase.
The leagues marketing insecurities prevented them from fully capitalizing on the high-profile of Erin Phillips, and that she is more or less on the sidelines in all ad campaigns is genuinely bewildering.
The tweak in this is that the league has been keen to portray every single female player as some sort of barrier buster, talking about their other sports and their kids and their job at Coles, that they aren’t conveying enough information about their athletic abilities.
Marketing female sports is about making the participants feel valued, and that this season would be important strategically to at least portray a sense of confidence and belonging to the AFLW community.
Since it’s become a negative experience for those who wish to play and support AFLW, the simplest of PR goals this season, before we even think about apps and personalised experiences, is to come up with a way to take away the negativity.
The league has so many imperfections that supporting the product has been about fighting the good fight, defending the league against trolling.
Promoting positive stories, retweeting positive stories about football at lower levels, engaging with grass-roots teams and reinforcing the sense of community that was lost in season 2 are simple marketing steps to combat negativity.
The league isn’t confident enough (or on established evidence competent enough) to come up with an ad campaign that create challenging social conversations (a la the IcelandAir or Serena ads) just yet.
Taking that out of the marketing equation, stripping it back earlier, they need to be aware of untold and unique stories (Courtney Gum would have been perfect) and celebrate the big moments.
Celebrating the big moments isn’t just tweeting “Look! Brooke kicked 7!” – it’s about integrating them into the story of the league, into the marketing, responding to what is actually happening.
And that also extends to the humor of the league – put the Sauce Bar on the front page (or at least, do an article on it), explain why Pepa eating a burrito is funny, showcase the sense of humor of Lily Mithen.
Don’t be afraid to put these things on the front page of the main website – if there is an AFLW story on the main page, it always seems staid or out of a press release, it doesn’t really reflect the humor and passion of the fans.
Also, the league shouldn’t be afraid to innovate with its sponsors – the sponsors can do some heavy lifting (and to tie into what we will talk about below) and they can work with AFLM players to co-brand and work on innovative strategies.
The league has an opportunity to market and repurpose its strategy – the negativity of Season 2 and the ill feeling towards AFLHQ can’t be changed.
Season 3 can still be a positive experience – can still be a marketing success, if there is a collective will and proper strategies implemented.
But there is one issue to solve…
So much on my mind that I can’t recline….
That all said, there’s a much deeper problem that’s holding the league back – and its something no ad campaign, glitzy slogan, Sharni Layton skits or unique merchandising opportunity can fix.
Until the league finds a strong, supportive voice from AFLHQ and AFLW officialdom, it is going to be a league of gestures, photo opportunities and slogans that lack impact.
We talked above about the loss of community through indecision in season 2, since AFLW fans were forced to almost justify their love and passion for the league, in face of a blizzard of ill-informed commentary and desultory support for the product.
This is especially important since the Herald Sun has began tapping into a consistent leitmotif of interviewing older male footballers and football personalities and letting them say whatever they want about AFLW without question or debate.
Take Peter Jess, who was able to very calmly have his view that concussions in womens football would create an “intergenerational nightmare” in which women would forget to pick up their kids from school.
I mean, they might even forget to make the mans tea when he comes home from work….
While Jess’s comments were so far out there as to be crazy even for hardcore Herald Sun readers, it struck a lot of PR nerves, in terms of this being an unchallenged view, that this was printed, read, digested and no one officially challenged it.
And when you look at the short history of AFLW, you find a consistent pattern of older football media and male personalities with something to say.
In all of those cases the lack of official voice undermines every lunch time conjured up slogan the league wants to associate itself with.
Whether that comment comes from Dermot, or Mark Robinson, or any number of Cornes (a hashtag of Cornes? We’ll work on that), or Jeff Kennett, or Jess or whoever, it is allowed to go through the usual cycles (article, comments, comments become letters page) without the usual 4th act of the cycle in which there is a strong response against the comments or opinions expressed.
It’s fine to say “we loves womens football! This is your home!” but when Mick Malthouse is able to say on a football panel with one of your marquee stars that “football is a mans game” and that women should play the modified equivalent of flag football, and there’s no challenge to that, the league is anything but your home.
Incidentally, Jason Akermanis was allowed unchallenged to state on national television that Mo Hope was “a bit sensitive” to criticism, so let that sink in.
The worst thing about the Malthouse comments (and his “clarification”) is the ongoing fact that even in season 3 of the competition, there is still a strain of punditry and comment that believes this league shouldn’t exist.
This wasn’t the case in season 1 or during the “All Star” game era where AFLM players were regularly tweeting personal support for the game and the league.
So where did that enthusiasm for the product go?
It went away when the league stopped believing in itself, sold itself short with the memo, sold itself short with a lack of confidence – the only way to get that back now is through vocalising it’s right to be here.
Meekness is not an option right now, retreating is not an option right now – leaving Mo Hope to fend for herself was disappointing, it undermines every slogan they can come up with.
When Gil McLachlan is walking out of the AFLW draft after pick 12, once the sandwiches are consumed and the photos are taken for the PR brochure, it’s definitely worth questioning the support given to this league.
That support isn’t just financial, it’s about encouragement, it’s about the sense of belonging – that support can’t just extend to “well we took a team photo and the women were in it!” – and not having anyone in AFLM (or AFLHQ officialdom) who fights for the league and it’s participants verbally.
That can’t be left to Susan Alberti and alternative podcasts anymore – the slogan driven rhetoric wears thin when the league blinks in the face of criticism.
The “ex male player is wisdom” entrenched into mainstream media is difficult to crack of course.
Until the league is able to find a voice that is strong enough to be the league that it wants to be and not leave it to alternative media, podcasts and tweets to try to fight fire with fire, we’re stuck in a marketing holding position.
We talked above about taking away the negativity around AFLW, but without that official support, that negativity is always one interview with an old 70s footballer away.
We mentioned above the league might not be ready to engage in challenging social conversations about the role of women in sport, but that’s only because their marketing isn’t yet clever enough to work out how to do it.
That’s only in the sense of an ad campaign – day-to-day, their marketing needs to be sharper and smarter.
It’s time to have conversations that challenge the role of women in football – and if they don’t have the PR nous or ability to work that out yet, we’ll be summer filler content for some time to come…