With US Women’s Soccer Donation, Secret Hopes to Start a Sponsorship Trend

Addressing disparity in female athletes' pay

U.S. Women's National Soccer team group photo in the field during the World Cup finals
The U.S. women's national soccer team celebrated their fourth World Cup win in 2019. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

When the U.S. women’s national soccer team brought home its fourth—and second consecutive—World Cup title earlier this month, the celebration couldn’t help but serve as glaring reminder of another battle the team has not yet won: the fight over equal pay.

In March, all 28 members of the USWNT filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over making less than their male counterparts. That’s despite the men’s national team not even qualifying for the World Cup last year, and women’s games generating more revenue in the U.S., according audited financial statements from the U.S. Soccer Federation obtained by the Wall Street Journal. Mediation is set to begin now that the World Cup has concluded.

But one of the team’s sponsors has already stepped up to help level the playing field. On Sunday, Secret, the women’s deodorant brand owned by Procter & Gamble, donated $529,000 to the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, which translates to $23,000 for each player. The brand announced the move in a full-page New York Times ad (designed by Berlin Cameron, written by DeVries Global with creative lead from Secret).

Equal pay is a buzzy topic, particularly given the USWNT’s World Cup win. But Joanne McKinney, CEO of brand transformation company Burns Group, who has studied brand campaigns centering on gender equality, said when it comes to this work, “most of them are really awareness-building, they’re not necessarily action-oriented.”

“There are a lot of great ideas out there, but I was really excited to see this example, where P&G is really putting their money where their mouth is in many ways, and really showing a bias towards action as it relates to this issue,” she said.

White and blue ad about women making history and equal pay
Secret's full-page New York Times ad announcing the donation

Secret chose to make a donation in order to do just that: showcase the importance of prioritizing action over awareness. “As a partner, advocate and supporter of the USWNT, we believe that visibility is so important for getting the players the attention and pay that they deserve,” said Sara Saunders, associate brand director for Secret at P&G. “We took this opportunity to demonstrate that publicly in hopes that we’ll inspire others to contribute to their efforts as well.”

It’s action that USWNT athletes have been pushing for. During a visit to Meet the Press following the team’s return stateside, team member Megan Rapinoe—who, besides her advocacy for equal pay, gained fame for her game-defining penalty goal in the World Cup final—said brands should pick up the slack when it comes to pay discrepancy.

“I think that it is a complicated issue, and I think sometimes we get in the weeds about it, can’t see the forest for the trees, when, you know, big sponsors can just write the check,” she said. “These are some of the most powerful corporations, not just in sports but in the world, and have so much weight that they can throw around, and I think that they just need to get comfortable with throwing it around.”

Corporate sports sponsorships are nothing new. But what’s less common is seeing this money used for something beyond splashing ads across stadiums or space to set up activations.

“The idea of looking closely at where we put our money, and thinking about what action that money could actually spark, what type of progress that could spark, is really an interesting thought,” said McKinney. “I hope it makes every brand look closely at those kind of relationships and how they can use them to greater good.”

P&G in particular is in a position to take this sort of pioneering action given its status as one of the world’s largest advertisers.

“There are certainly a lot of people that agree with this issue that’s been raised by the soccer team, and there’s so much press on it, which is great, but actually having a sponsor come forward and putting money on the table to help minimize that pay gap is really critical,” McKinney said. “Companies of this size, like P&G, they have the ability to make an impact, and they also have a responsibility to set that standard and serve as a great example to other brands to think about how they should use their sponsorship dollars.”

Last year, P&G teamed up with the workplace equality advocacy group LeanIn.org for a campaign. Secret’s advertising has centered on the topic through a collaboration last year with the fair wage group Ladies Get Paid which included video spots.

Internally, Saunders said P&G implements “fair pay practices based on a clearly articulated compensation philosophy, a well-defined set of compensation policies and structure, and robust execution and pay equity audit processes.” The company conducted an audit in 2017 that found “no appreciable gap” between male and female employees. However, a gender pay gap report on P&G UK from that same year stated that women’s median hourly wage at the company is 29.8% lower than men’s. Women hold over 75% of the lowest quarter paid positions at the company, and 53.6% of the highest paid. (A bright spot: 14.5% of women received bonuses, while only 8.9% of men did.)

Saunders said P&G shares this stance: “As one of the world’s largest advertisers, P&G is in a unique position to help shape attitudes and culture, and spark dialogue on important social topics. We take this role very seriously, which is why it’s so important that we stand up for what we believe in and support our partners in meaningful ways.”

And the partners in question are appreciative.

“Athletes are becoming more than the sport that they play, and they have bigger voices,” Adi Kunalic, co-founder and president of athlete marketing platform opendorse, said. “Today’s athlete, they really want to be a part of an organization that believes in something.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.