by Brian C. Mackey
Mackey Marketing Group, Inc.
Recently, a thoughtful article appeared on the internet that questioned the seemingly counterproductive strategy employed by the ALMS in regards to their television package, particularly the recent 12 Hours of Sebring. The article was taken down by its author once it became unintentionally a viral lightning rod that sparked numerous responses, both pro and con. Therefore, I can’t reference it within this article context.
However, from my perspective, now some twenty-five years on in the motorsport marketing business, one simple element has been missing from many of these similar and parallel discussions. While something is wrong with motorsports, many look for answers from the same well of options. While most can agree that motorsports’ commercial appeal has declined in recent years, the solution that is often mentioned overlooks the root cause.
The simple fact remains is that what once worked in the motorsport marketing business, now doesn’t. Or at least not sufficiently to alter the course of motorsports’ decline. This challenge is not limited to one series, one kind of motorsport, be it Indy Car, ALMS, NHRA or NASCAR, or even Formula One. The problem rests with the sports’ inability to fully grasp that “exposure” is essentially a benefit of the past. Companies that sponsor events, including motorsports and race cars, have moved far beyond the concept that their brand is receiving “top of mind” awareness and building “exposure” as a means to justify the commercial investment in splashing their logo on a sporting event or race car. Where 25 years ago, I could call upon companies and occasionally convince them to place a sticker on an entry in the Indy 500 because “every sports publication, every sports page, every TV sports report, might display a picture or a mention of the commercial affiliation” will no longer carry the same weight in a 21st century marketing environment.
Exposure is not the problem, whether on TV, at the events, or anywhere else. I would contend that media coverage of motor racing, including most specifically television, is quite expansive, particularly compared to 25 years ago. In today’s technology-filled world, exposure is relatively cheap and often far cheaper to attain than the cost of motorsport participation, which obviously, if the commercial model is to succeed, is the amount of money needed for race teams to compete. This gap is essentially today’s sponsorship problem.
To fully understand the issue, I suggest one looks back a few years to the mid to late 1980s, to a time when NASCAR was fully engaged in developing a powerhouse that still carries a remarkable, if not a bit strained in recent seasons, impact and scale of commercial support that seemed unlikely at best, unbelievable at worst, to those who viewed the phenomenon from the outside. “Who would spend millions of dollars to put a logo on the side of a race car?” would be the familiar and uninformed refrain. It wasn’t then, and it most certainly isn’t now, primarily about the amount of publicity a company would receive as a result of painting their corporate colors on what was then a “Winston Cup” car.
The problem is that during those heady days of explosive growth for NASCAR, and everywhere else, is that many of us THOUGHT that exposure was the driving force behind the commercial appeal. We as an industry seemed to rely on it and embraced it. And a lot of sponsorship was sold as a result of it. Rest assured, I’m not suggesting that exposure is not a benefit of sponsoring a race car. What I am saying is that exposure is not the underlying reason for motorsports’ success and growth during that period. Exposure was more simply a by-product of it and a means to measure it, as in the number of people in the racing audience. An audience’s reach does not automatically equate to its ability to interact and influence it.
The real reason for NASCAR’s success was quite simple. It was the fans.
I recall attending a marketing seminar back then where they played a video of a television report that, with some tongue-in-cheek and a chuckle, documented NASCAR fans loyalty to sponsors. The audience snickered at these “good ol’ boys” (and women) who wore sponsor adorned t-shirts and insisted their families purchase “Tide” detergent. But when the lights came up, the seminar presenter reminded the audience that while we may find this level of involvement to be a bit amusing, it was precisely the kind of relationship that we all would want to aspire to achieve if we were to realize similar success for sponsorship and event marketing. In a similar vein, I recall some research from that era, that indicated that some 30% of the television audience that viewed a specific race on TV responded that they purchased a NASCAR sponsored product advertised during that telecast ( and I’ve never forgotten the terminology used), PURELY due to the sponsorship of the race car. PURELY. 30+%. Forget all the other advertising, NASCAR fans bought the product PURELY due to the NASCAR involvement. And that dear readers is why Madison Avenue signed on with gusto.
NASCAR had a unique relationship with its fans that drove the success. The sponsors of these drivers were more than anonymous participants. They weren’t obscure or distant strangers. They were fellow enthusiasts sharing in the success of a favorite driver through interactive marketing campaigns that featured their participation. NASCAR fans weren’t concerned about watching the race on TV, even though they did in increasing numbers, nor did they attend all the races, even as they traveled to more and more of them. But what they did do was essential. They purchased products. It wasn’t the television exposure that did that. It was the people who watched it.
Fast forward 25 years. What can be done today to revive the stagnant if not fading marketing effectiveness of this sport? I contend that the answer does not lie in the past. We can no longer rely on the tools we have used that traditionally “seemed” to be the answer. That means “exposure” is not going to lead the charge. It may provide a sampling of benefit but must reflect just one piece of the pie, not the whole pie. But what will replace it? The answer must be to modernize our thinking to more reflect the times we are in. From that perspective, I applaud ALMS’ effort to forge new paths seeking the answers. While it may be debated whether they missed the mark with electing no “live” television coverage of their flagship event on any traditional broadcast outlet, I do think the basic underlying thinking is precisely spot-on. The mistakes of these initial efforts can be corrected, but the philosophy that initiated them must remain intact. Motorsports needs relevancy to new audiences if it is going to replicate the success achieved by NASCAR or even come close to it. Today, racing’s future is dependent upon our collective utilization of a modern array of marketing and communications tools that will accelerate the sport to new, younger and active audiences. And we must always strive to recreate the interaction between fan and sport that comes tantalizingly close to what NASCAR achieved over the past decades. I don’t believe that “exposure” oriented emphasis will accomplish that. It’s too passive and it’s too old school. Simply broadcasting a signal to more homes, rather than focusing on the relationship between the audience and the sport, is the all important and critical difference. In the future, it may well be too simple to say that network is better than cable, or that internet is too small to be a viable contender. Moving forward, the answer will lie in motorsports’ ability to influence a far greater proportion of a much more highly targeted audience, made as large as possible via a varied and disparate channel of interactive strategies, including television and other traditional motorsport marketing strategies, that results in a significant and measurable response for commercial partners. Fans must respond by interacting with sponsor products. To oversimplify, fans have to buy sponsor product and services, rather than the sponsor’s competitive brands. If the sport can document a strategy that clearly illustrates pathways to higher and higher levels of direct interaction between sport and fan, we’ll find the sport again leading the way in corporate support and activation. For a sport that likes to “push the envelope,” this new challenge is well within our capacity to accomplish. To me, it looks like the recent efforts of the ALMS as well as Indy Car suggest that we are indeed witnessing the beginning of a new day.