It’s that time of year again. You know, the changing fall colors, the cooling air, pumpkins and most of all, we’re deep in the sponsor hunting season of the fourth quarter. In reality, the search for sponsors is all year long, but this time of year is reserved for the most concentrated effort. But just like the seasons seem to be a little out of kilter, in recent years so has the sponsorship story.
I used to think motorsports was at a crossroads. I don’t think that way anymore. Because, it’s not. Crossroads suggests options, choices on which direction to take. Motorsports has long past the last crossroads in sight. It now approaches a turning point. It will either navigate the turn or fall off the road and over the cliff. There are no more alternatives. I’m talking motorsport marketing here, not rules, not television, not attendance, not spec cars, not schedules or any other element of a myriad of challenges that faces this sport. In my world, it’s all about marketing. Unless the marketing modernizes, the sport will suffer continued consequences. The worst case scenario? Irrelevancy. From a marketing perspective, there is nothing worse. And we seem to be racing in that direction.
The truth of the matter is that motorsports marketing and specifically, the promotion of it, is old hat. Consider for a moment that the most talked about element in the selling of motorsport sponsorship from many of its constituents continues to be, “exposure.” I receive marketing packs from time to time from teams and drivers seeking sponsorship support. And more often than not, there it is, bold and prominent — a call for sponsorship that will bring greater “exposure” for the sponsor, backed by mind-numbing numbers, attendance figures and television ratings. Change the pictures and it could be any number of sponsor packs from any number of professional race teams across the country if not the world. A strategy that was formed back in the late sixties when the Lotus Formula One team showed up during the 1968 season, not in the colors of the British teams, aka British Racing Green, but in the corporate colors of the team sponsor; the Gold Leaf Team Lotus. It was a revolutionary idea then. We, that is the industry, the participants, the series, the powers that be, are still formulating strategies based upon the benefit on the number of people who will be “exposed” to the branding. Without a doubt, this seemingly simple development spawned a massive industry and a very successful run as a marketing “platform” where fans responded and brand loyalties were cemented into the consciousness of a generation. But times have changed. And motor racing hasn’t.
Now I know there are other elements involved. There’s hospitality, B2B, corporate morale, consumer linked promotion, they are all part of the sponsorship pie. And yes, admittedly, sponsorship branding still has major appeal and benefit. But the underpinnings, the basic strategic direction, that is used time and time again, resonates the same dated scheme and it is running out of gas. Insiders express concerns about the events, the television coverage, the ratings, and the lack thereof, but they’re all symptomatic. Motorsport marketing no longer seems relevant to a growing number of consumers and more importantly, the marketing managers and corporate executives whose decisions the sport relies upon. I often read in the press that sponsors have noted the dwindling ratings and attendance figures that trouble the sport at an ever increasing rate. This concern from sponsors extends to the sports management who worry that without better and more consistent “exposure” numbers, sponsors won’t sponsor. Without sponsors, racers won’t race.
This is what happens when you do something for so long, that no one can think of a way to do it differently. And that’s the problem.
We need wholesale change. Keep in mind, the wholesale change that I speak of here, is not meant to emanate from rules, events, cars, drivers, television ratings, or any other element that consumes the efforts of the industry. This wholesale change is limited to a rewrite of the marketing benefits that can be derived from a motorsport sponsorship.
The reason is pretty basic. Branding and its close friend “exposure”, combined with television and the other infrastructure elements that make up a traditional motorsport marketing campaign will likely continue to play a major role in future promotions. However, the continued focus on the rudimentary, not to mention 20th century looking appeal of “exposure” reinforces a notion that motorsports has grown stagnant. Rest assured, there are examples of highly engaging promotions that most typically emerge from the pinnacle realms of the sport from Formula One to NASCAR and even Indy Cars. But these examples are more the exception and on their own cannot overcome the more common place reliance upon the overused emphasis on branding.
I’m a sponsor guy who goes to races with eyes and mind focused on this one aspect. To me and others like me, a motor racing event is not a race happening, but a marketing one. So here’s the upstart: “exposure” has diminishing impact and its usefulness is increasingly questionable. Its dwindling impact corresponds with the growing apathy that is radiating from race fans around the world. It is as if we can’t think of any other way to benefit from sponsoring a race car beyond slapping a sticker on it and waiting for someone to see it.
It’s not how many people the racing program will reach. Rather, how many people your racing operation will engage. And how. And why. And when. And how much, how often and how long. And how does it relate to the sponsor? And how can television engage to a greater degree and interact with the viewers? These are the principles from which motorsports can gain back its relevancy. In much the same way NASCAR did a fantastic job of educating and selling sponsors on the influence that the sport exhibited from its growing fan base back in the peak growth years of the 1990s, we need to develop a new menu of strengths that will enable motorsports to interest new and old sponsors alike. A modernized approach where the dominant and core benefit of sponsorship is not tied so singularly to a strategy that debuted nearly fifty years ago? Too much has emerged and too many opportunities are being bypassed. It’s time we reinvented what it means to sponsor a race car, with new ideas, revolutionary new elements heretofore not seen or contemplated. It needs to be as innovative as the Gold Leaf team Lotus was when it was first rolled to the starting grid in 1968.
Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Because it can. There are examples. This industry is full of visionaries, risk takers, and just plain smart people who can direct their attention toward development of radically new ideas and inspired wonder. This sponsorship season could be the opening salvo in an exciting time, a dawn of a new era where motorsports returns to its place as the dominant event marketing application in the world of sport, not because it relied on its legendary past, but because it focused on innovation, creativity and played out those ideas on very commercial friendly arenas.
This new day stands just beyond that sharp curve ahead. This is the turning point. But the time has come to quit looking behind and boldly navigate forward.