March 22, 2013

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Teams are starting to promote brands that are relevant and accessible to fans © Sutton Images

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Depending on your source, that quote comes from George Eliot, Abraham Lincoln, Confucius, and many, many more. It looks to be a bastardised version of Proverbs 17:28, which reads ‘Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.’

I’m neither a Biblical scholar nor a student of marketing, so I’m pretty sure that in the process of this piece, I will be removing all doubt. But at least my mouth is closed, even if my typing fingers are active.

One of the perks (hazards?) of being in the media is the number of emails you receive promoting various companies and research reports via infographics, videos, and advertorial copy. Most of it goes straight into my virtual bin, but every once in a while something comes along that piques my interest. Last night was one such time.

A marketing firm with a number of F1 clients analysed the online marketing efforts of all Formula One sponsors (team, individual, and sport) over the course of the 2012 season and determined the level of engagement and brand awareness that the various efforts had achieved. (I can’t promote the link here, but if you’re interested I tweeted it last night.)

Their findings were actually pretty dire. Less than a quarter – 24 percent – of F1 sponsors produced branded video content. Just over a third of that small group (34 percent) achieved more than 1,000 views. Given the size of F1’s global audience, which is estimated at half a billion, and the passionate core fanbase, getting fewer than 1,000 views is little short of pathetic.

So where are the sponsors going wrong?

There’s been a shift in F1 sponsorship approach in recent years, partly in response to the Great Financial CrisisTM, and partly due to the rise in social media and the changing way in which we consume content and interact with each other.

Where Formula One was once the great business-to-business platform, teams are now promoting products with a fervour not seen since the end of the tobacco days. Lotus have their Magnums, their music (Columbia Records), and their energy drink (Coca-Cola’s burn!), Caterham have Dell, and Mercedes have Blackberry. Instead of designer watches the price of a small family car, teams are now selling products their fans can actually afford to buy.

And then there’s Red Bull, who have been the most successful brand builders in F1 history. (Not an official statistic, btw…) But we’re now in the unusual position of having an energy drink company designing championship winning cars with title sponsorship from a car manufacturer that has nothing to do with what you’d think would be Infiniti’s core product – making those things with four wheels and an engine that go vroom vroom. The drinks firm designs and builds the cars, RenaultSportF1 powers them, and Infiniti sticks its name on the side and does loads of marketing. Maybe I’m the only one who sees it as a bit odd.

Simply sticking your name on the side of a car and on a driver’s race suit is no longer enough. Brands now promote themselves in ever more creative ways, keeping their fingers crossed that if they strike the right note their content – and their product – will go viral. Stonking piles of cash are flung at online content experts who promise brand exposure and leverage and additional buzzword bingo phrases that make most of us want to slit our wrists.

But if the latest analysis is to be believed, this new approach doesn’t seem to be working. At least, it doesn’t seem to be working as well as anticipated. We’re now so used to being sold to via every available form of media both online and off that – in my experience – it’s all become a blur of background noise.

Which brands do you think are winning and losing in the sponsorship stakes? What ‘viral’ video attempts have been memorably good or laughably bad? Can anything trump the news coverage that Santander’s fantasy London Grand Prix generated last year? I’m betting their current run of adverts with Jenson et al. won’t top anyone’s list...


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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'. Kate Walker