There is a mighty war going on. And most of us don’t actually get to see it. I’m not nearly expert enough to determine exactly what the entire battleground looks like, how technologically advanced, or how robust the combat, but I do know that motorsports is one big cog caught in the middle of it. It is a war that is being fought on the front lines of marketing. I call it the war between mass media and the new digital age of targeted media. Or more generally, it is a war between mass media vs. digital media with motorsports promotion jockeying in a no-man’s land somewhere between the two. What happens next is still being resolved and the end game will impact motorsport marketing’s competitive future.
While this war rages on distant battlefields in corporate offices and boardrooms, we often gain access to the affects of it in everyday motorsport news and developments. They are revealed as reports of “shrinking ratings,” “empty grandstands concerns” and worst of all, out of business racing concerns. Admittedly, there are areas seemingly unaffected by all the commotion, often those standing on the highest ground, but for those fighting closer to the trenches, the beating war drums are hard to ignore. The most important take away to be gained is not that there is a war going on, but rather how to fight it. In my lopsided, over-emphasized marketing opinion, this is where motorsports is lagging behind with dated and ineffective strategies.
In answer to challenges raging on multiple fronts, the traditional “return fire” often arguably falls short of the target. For example, television ratings are in decline, so the perhaps easy answer in response is to change the network, the rationale being it’s not the content but the delivery of it. Or fewer people are going to races, so the answer is to add “activities” to make the racing event livelier, or fabricate new rules to make events more “exciting.” Festivals and non-racing action are added in hopes of denting the attendance slide. Surely the fans will come to see all THIS!?
Motor racing cannot answer these market challenges by simply holding on. There’s no future in it. To recapture the initiative by maintaining its hold on old ideas is like flying a P51 Mustang, good as it once was, up against an F22 Raptor. We’re in a new era of ideas and the old measurements of success are rapidly being replaced by new ones that are a far cry from the previously delivered benefits of sponsorship. Today, measuring how many people will see the branding on the race car (television mass media approach) is being replaced and supplemented by how acutely can the campaign personally engage the audience (the digital media alternative). It’s a wholesale new method of locking in sponsorship benefits.
So how is motorsports to fight back? By remembering what got it here and reinforcing it with 21st century technology. So here’s this foot soldier’s battle plan offered up to the allied Generals of the motorsport forces.
Prepare for battle.
1. Rally the troops. Present new ways to engage race fans using technology, creativity, and transform the experience that a race fan sees and hears at the race track from one that hasn’t changed much in recent times to a revamped, rejuvenated, electronically wired showcase of sounds, sights, colors, smells, communications, interaction and sensory excitement overload that will send chills down the spine of every attendee the moment they walk through the turnstile. There is no arena in the world that can hold a candle to the inherent excitement that hangs over a motor racing event. Highlight that but focus on the racing of it, not generating sideshows and distractions. If you can’t make racing exciting, nothing else will either.
2. Protect the flank. Drop the over reliance on television ratings as the most reliable and dominant gauge of motorsport sponsorship value. Because in the future, it won’t be. Racing must devise ways to engage the fan from a variety of communication channels that will keep fans interested and actively seeking involvement from one race day to the next. Measure that as a means to showcase sponsorship values over dwindling rating numbers. Use television the way it was meant to be, as a broadcast of a live event when a fan’s attendance can’t be accommodated. TV coverage has come a long way. Use its strengths to support and contribute to the overall fan experience, not the chief source of sponsorship valuation. The world is changing and watching television the old fashioned way appears to be in a long term and permanent transformation.
3. Keep firing the big guns. There’s a lot in motorsport marketing and promotion that works; and powerfully. The sport enjoys an impressive, inherent ability to influence a passionate audience base to respond directly and loyally to commercial messages, a stunning capability. Not many other alternatives can match this level of influence or its historical record of doing so. In addition, the B2B arsenal is a crucial element that helps sustain this sports’ marketing competitiveness. Bring each to the front lines while inventing new, more advanced techniques designed to increase personal interaction.
4. Introduce new, modern weapons. Formulate greater levels of sponsor relevancy amid a vast increased need to communicate specific commercial messages via a racing promotion. Displaying a logo on a race car or race track is an old idea, but communicating a specific message as a byproduct of it is not. Exposure is random. Messaging isn’t. Communicate why the race car is on the race track from a promotion standpoint. Exploit that motive completely and creatively while coordinating the surrounding promotional campaign. Give the race fan a more readily apparent reason to engage than traditionally available now.
5. Win the war. Look, I’m just a marketing guy with a marketing guy’s narrow viewpoint and skewed priority, who works predominately on the periphery of the sport along with some sorties into the major leagues, with battles scars won and lost to show for it. And I’ve been doing this for an ungodly long period of time. Because of this, I’ve seen what it means to be on the front lines of banging on keyboards developing fresh ideas to combat old and overused ones. With proper and savvy response to market challenges, from my perspective, I can see a path to a revitalized future, a far more interactive landscape, a fan experience that will deliver unrivaled ability to engage attendees and their close cousins, TV viewers, from event to event and from one end of the season to the other. With racing’s legendary personal relationship between fan and event, fan and driver and fan and car, there are opportunities unfolding that could return motorsport to a level of event marketing capability that is second to none.
In the meantime, there is a war unfolding; a war between radically differing viewpoints and shifting marketing landscapes. Time is redefining the rules of engagement and we need to answer the call by reacting precisely, wisely and skillfully without firing fearfully and randomly into the dark. And like any war, we need to be on the winning side. Because inevitably, there will be casualties. And motor racing’s leadership position in marketing, promotion and sponsorship capabilities mustn’t and shouldn’t be one of them.