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Feeling the Force

Liberty Media, who completed their $8bn acquisition of Formula One in January, are beginning to deliver on their promise to attract a new generation of fans to the sport.From creating a more inclusive and entertaining experience for racegoers, to looking beyond direct commercial gain to fully embrace social media and the proposed launch of an OTT channel (as well as making some very smart behind the scenes hires), Formula One is certainly moving in the right direction.

And in this new dawn for F1, one team is making giant strides off the track. With a striking new pink livery, Force India is undergoing a transformation that goes far beyond the aesthetics of the car. Through a savvy commercial strategy, they are putting themselves at the forefront of the Liberty millennial revolution.

Amongst the blue-chip brands, whose logos have adorned the cars across the grid for decades, Force India have quietly been attracting a new breed of partner – and one seldom seen in the paddock before Liberty Media entered the fray; those with a target audience under the age of 30. The illusive and oft-mentioned millennial.Menswear label Farah has been brought on as Official Apparel Partner, bringing to life the partnership through their #RaceReady campaign; “a six-part content series profiling the men behind the scenes of the world’s most stylish sport”. They have also announced deals with designer eyewear brand LDNR and Diageo, as well as a prominent charity partnership with Breast Cancer Care to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the famous pink ribbon.

But the deal which stands out is the recently announced partnership with SPORTbible. Part of the LADbible Group, SPORTbible has become one of the largest communities and distributors of content for sports fans in the world. According to Quantcast, SPORTbible reaches an impressive 2.7m people monthly, of which almost 65% are under the age of 34. The partnership will see SPORTbible given exclusive access to the team to create an array of content, including interviews competitions and behind the scenes video, which will be pushed across their burgeoning social channels.

One would assume that these partnerships may be below many of the inflated rights fees that we see across the grid, placing more emphasis on the reciprocal value that they will receive by association with these brands rather than upfront investment.For partners like Farah and LDNR, it gives Force India credibility and momentum. Brands want to appear alongside other like-minded brands and are likely to seek out teams who have a stable of sponsors who fit their values. We saw a similar situation in our work with Martini, whose very visible title partnership with Williams F1, helped to make Williams a more attractive prospect for sponsors such as Rexona/Sure and Hackett.

For SPORTbible, the association has the potential to enhance the whole sponsorship proposition at Force India. Firstly, it gives potential new partners (as well as the current stable) significant additional exposure to a younger audience and a ready-made activation platform; both of which are extremely valuable negotiating tools. Secondly, if SPORTbible can help Force India to develop a more sophisticated approach to data capture and segmentation, access to this database, full of rich customer data, becomes a very valuable part of any sponsorship proposal and something which not many rightsholders are able to match.

The shift in livery is also unlikely to be a whimsical choice but one made with commerciality in mind. Whilst certainly attractive to Indian brands, the Indian flag inspired livery of past seasons will no doubt have steered potential sponsors away in fear of not feeling a natural part of what was a heavily Indian stable of partners. There are even strong rumours, at the time of writing, that owner Vijay Mallya is also considering changing the teams name in order to widen the commercial appeal. One thing is not in doubt; their current choice of livery will certainly help them to stand out from the crowd.

What this new strategy does is not only open-up a new and potentially very valuable audience for Force India, with a monetizable relationship that could last decades, it also opens the door to a raft of new ‘B2C’ brands who want to reach millennials at scale. And as first-movers in this space, Force India are extremely well placed to reap the financial benefits.And crucially, this incremental revenue will help a team who have been plagued by financial concerns in recent times to safeguard their future. Concerns which would be magnified if they were to lose the sizeable revenue from numerous Mexican brands that come with driver Sergio Perez, should, as rumoured, one of the bigger teams come calling.

All of this happily coincides with an upturn of fortunes on the track. Indeed, in a world where there is a gulf in levels of spending between teams, Force India are, pound for pound, arguably the best team on the grid this season.

Formula One is changing and Force India may just have put themselves in pole position in the Liberty Media revolution.

A New Race Strategy

$8bn: The amount paid by Liberty Media to acquire the commercial rights to F1
$750m: Sponsorship revenue in 2015, down from $950m in 2011
400m: F1 television audience in 2016, down from over 600m in 2008

Formula One can be a contradiction — cutting-edge on the track, a marketing anachronism off it. But 2017 is the year when the speed of change off the track may outpace the cars on it. New owner Liberty Media has bought the commercial rights to the sport for a sizable chunk of change ($8bn) and has started detailing where it sees the chance to make good on that investment.

The new management team of Chase Carey (CEO) and Sean Bratches (MD Commercial Operations) have outlined clear plans to revolutionize the way the sport is marketed and experienced. Carey has spoken about creating ’21 Super Bowls’, while Bratches has laid out four priorities, including refreshing the F1 brand, embracing digital channels, democratizing decision-making and re-imagining the race experience.There is no doubt that there are plenty of players in F1 that will find change hard when many teams and sponsors have been following the same rules for such a long time. But equally this is music to the ears of many people in F1, who have been arguing for years that the controlled and conservative commercial model it had pursued was causing F1 to fall behind in the race for consumers’ attention.

The new model is looking to build and market the F1 brand — not just the sport. One of the most exciting implications of this is F1 sponsorship becoming more attractive to consumer brands (it’s no coincidence that many current sponsors are B2B brands). I can speak from personal experience that, with a creative lens on it, F1 can open up huge consumer marketing opportunities.

When I was at Martini, our focus when we returned to the grid as title sponsor of the Williams Martini Racing team in 2014 was to disrupt the traditional sponsorship model. We sensed there was a real opportunity to shift our focus away from the track and towards the city centers where the races were being run. Similarly, our campaign didn’t rely on traditional TV-led media channels to drive exposure, but used digital and social channels to engage with our target Millennial consumers. After all, we knew that they were unlikely to be solely at the track or watching the race on TV.Rather, our activation exploited the opportunity afforded by the extraordinary race locations from Milan to Sao Paulo as playgrounds for non-traditional F1 marketing. We treated the race like a city-wide festival, targeting not only the race weekend, but also the week-long build-up, when the energy of the city noticeably rises with the anticipation of the race coming to town. We fed that excitement by creating Martini Terrazzas in Millennial-dense city center locations, fusing music, food, art and, of course, F1 to create the ultimate physical manifestation of the Martini lifestyle. We then drove the unique content it generated around the city, country and world through on-site, live social war rooms. It was disruptive and effective. We were not only able to create buzz and energy around the brand, but drive sales among a new and younger audience.

It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always perfect, but we learnt a hell of a lot on the way. Most importantly, it proved the power of F1 to reach a younger, more connected audience away from the track and traditional channels. With sound data and powerful insights giving us a good understanding of our audience’s behavior, we were able to use F1 to create something that differentiated us from our competition and brought new fans to our brand and the sport.

The idea of bringing fans closer to F1 was also a core element of our recent activation with Bose and the Mercedes AMG PETRONAS Formula One team. Our ambition was simple — to use the power of sound to transport people into one of the most exclusive places in all of sport: the triple world champions’ team garage in the moments immediately before the cars go out onto the grid.The Garage was a truly ground-breaking multi-sensory, immersive experiential activation that we created in Austin, Texas to demonstrate the industry-leading Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones. We used the true sounds of the team garage to create a 360° soundscape, and a custom-developed play-back engine used the Bose headphones to deliver exactly the right sound to each ear as the fan moved around the space. We took nearly 4,000 fans (plus Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg) inside the inner sanctum of F1, while the digital content was shared by millions.In my view, Casey’s ‘21 Super Bowls’ is spot on, and Liberty Media’s stake in Live Nation further enhances their credentials in the space. They have created the opportunity, but now it’s down to the teams, sponsors and agencies to make the most of it.

Another item that will no doubt be right on top of the new American owners’ agenda will be breaking the USA — the toughest (and most domestically saturated) sports market on the planet — but also the one with the greatest growth opportunity. As Bratches has said: ‘Having the theater of Formula 1 in the backdrop of the iconic US cities could be very attractive’, and it’s not hard to see why. For F1 to call itself truly global, and to reverse a downward sponsorship income from $950m in 2011 to $750m in 2015, it must become more than a niche sport in the world’s biggest media market, with the vast eyeballs, engagement and sponsorship dollars that entails.

Even though it is still largely viewed as an unknown curiosity, it is associated with a mixture of cutting-edge technology and old world European glamor, which is not a bad place to start. NBC, the domestic F1 broadcaster, has showed some growth in F1 ratings over the last few years, albeit off a low base.
And the good news is that Bratches, a 27-year veteran of ESPN, knows better than most how to build a sports fan base in the US. He knows the power of storytelling to capture the imagination of the audience. Focusing on the personalities of the drivers, the intense rivalries and the rich history of the sport (including two American world champions in Mario Andretti and Phil Hill), F1 provides an extraordinarily rich vein of content for an audience that can’t get enough of sports history and stories.

Of course, for a country that loves a winner, it will also be critical for the US-owned Haas team to see some success, while getting home-grown and competitive drivers behind a steering wheel as fast as possible is also imperative. It would also not be a surprise to see the introduction of some technical and format changes that would spice up the racing and make it more appealing to a US audience.

All of this might mean that sponsors — many of whom are based in the States — might need to invest a little bit ahead of the curve, but with so much to play for, surely it’s a risk worth taking. Week-long festivals, which combine world-class sport with technology, music, fashion and celebrity, based around street circuits in New York, Miami or LA and heavily marketed to a Millennial audience through re-vamped social channels and distribution platforms. Now that’s a future for F1 that’s easy to buy into.

When the cars take to the grid in Melbourne, it will officially signal the start of a new era of leadership for F1. Liberty Media has talked an impressive game in terms of up-front investment, focus and desire to expand the sport. Now the race is on for teams and their sponsors to rise to the challenge.