Race on Sunday, tweet on Monday: motorsport, social media and auto marketing

Prodrive sees a renaissance in OEM support for motorsport, but not as we know it today

Richard Harrington speaks to motorsport experts Prodrive about how social media, globalising vehicle brands and dramatic cost reduction are breaking a new dawn for what used to be a mainstay of vehicle promotion

‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ neatly summarises the sales strategy that led to a golden age for motorsport in the second half of the twentieth century. Running cars that were often closely related to their road going sisters, brands from the esoteric to the everyday forged powerful reputations on the track. But as the new century blossomed, motorsport became less relevant to the volume car buyer and factory support was gradually withdrawn. Today, performance is measured in grams of CO2 per kilometre not in mph, and the reassuring safety of race-proven disc brakes has been replaced by electronics that will never be seen on track.

Richard Taylor is clear that now is the time to reassess the potential of motorsport. Taylor is Motorsport Business Director at Prodrive, one of the world’s most successful motorsport companies and the only one with victories in every major global formula. Having spent 20 years at the company – including a period leading the Subaru World Rally Team that put a blue Impreza Turbo on so many a young man’s most wanted list – Taylor understands the synergies between motorsport and brand development. Sitting in his office in Banbury, UK, he produces a compelling argument for a renaissance in OEM support for motorsport, but not as we know it today.

Taylor starts by taking Formula 1 out of this conversation: “It dominates the media, is outrageously expensive and immediately shifts people’s perceptions. Mention motorsport to brand directors and because of Formula 1, they put up barriers,” Taylor says. “Take that out of the equation and we are left with a fast-revitalising industry with tremendous potential for customer engagement at a cost that is dramatically less than most OEMs realise.”

The foundations of his confidence are built on far more than reviving old glories. At the heart of this rebirth are fundamental shifts in both the structure of the automotive industry and in the promotional tools available. Newly globalising vehicle manufacturers, growth in developing markets, and the remarkable potential of social media are transforming how brands engage with their target audiences. Motorsport isn’t the only solution, but if Taylor is right, it offers tremendous potential for those OEMs with the vision to do things differently.


Challenger brands

When a brand is coming from behind, it has different objectives to established leaders: imagine Porsche or Ford taking part in motorsport without a commitment to win. But for a rising brand, simply being on the podium challenging these names is a tremendous accomplishment that will immediately lift global perceptions and associate the company with the highest levels of achievement, sprinkling a touch of the motorsport glamour that most manufacturers think they can no longer afford.
“I think of these new OEMs as challenger brands,” says Taylor. “Many have excellent products, but they have a long way to come in people’s perceptions. They need to make up ground very quickly so they can increase volumes and push up margins. Motorsport can validate values of quality, technology and durability at an astonishing pace – and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The clever strategy for challenger brands is to aim for an appropriate level of success. The difference in cost between going all-out to win and aiming to be on the podium alongside the big-budget teams is dramatic.”

The real key to success, however, is how motorsport is used in vehicle sales and marketing. “It’s about finding new ways to take the brand values to the buyers, using motorsport to wrap them in exciting, compelling stories that create engagement,” explains Taylor. “Social media is made for motorsport. The excitement of everything from testing and travel to the race itself provides the stories and materials that bring a brand to life.”

Has anyone not heard of Nissan’s adventures with the advanced DeltaWing endurance racer? This very low cost programme cleverly delivered messages about innovation and environmental sustainability, using a mix of traditional, online and social media to great effect. It also helped with the challenging recruitment of engineers, by improving their perceptions of Nissan as a stimulating place to work.

Social engagement

Having a robust strategy for delivering value from the programme is absolutely critical. In purely motorsport terms, the Lancia Integrale with 46 WRC victories was substantially more successful than the Audi Quattro with 23, but Lancia failed to tell their market. One of the most exciting aspects of today’s new motorsport opportunities is that they are being developed to complement social media, which is revolutionising customer engagement. Land Rover’s social media pre-launch of the Evoque, a textbook success story that burst through their already ambitious targets, just shows what can be achieved if the right approach is employed.

“Motorsport is visually dramatic, it’s populated by colourful people doing heroic things, it tells a story and it can be localised. That makes it perfect for online customer engagement,” says Taylor. “Local sales organisations can develop a strong following for their local heroes, who can be drivers, designers, anyone with an interesting role in the team. Social media can take the excitement of the motorsport story into everyone’s home.”

Moving forward

But even this is now yesterday’s technology. The very latest social media campaigns allow customers to race against their heroes, alongside top drivers on the same circuits. “Motorsport is data rich,” says Taylor. “We can track the driver’s heart rate, the car’s power output, the cornering forces – and you don’t even have to be sitting at a PC as it can all now be delivered to a phone. With this level of customer engagement, visits to dealerships by motorsport cars or drivers can attract large numbers of potential buyers, as well as local press coverage.

“It’s about making everything work synergistically, using carefully chosen motorsport activities to feed customer engagement materials into a wide range of communications channels.”

Prodrive’s budget for running the all-conquering Subaru team is reported to have been around €25m (US$33.68m) each year. Today, Technical Director David Lapworth believes they could achieve similar results for just €10m (US$13.5m) a year. “Part of that is due to the new modelling systems that Prodrive has developed to drive cost out without affecting performance, but it is also a huge compliment to the FIA for their commitment to eliminating many of the excesses of past decades,” he explains.
“Engines are a good example: in WRC, the top teams would run one engine per car per race and the engine design would be heavily bespoke. Today, engines are much closer to the road car units and each car is allowed only two per season.” Driver salaries are also not prohibitive. “Today, most top drivers come with their own sponsorship and are not a major part of the cost equation,” confirms Lapworth.

So what are the rising races that OEMs should be evaluating? Taylor says there are four fast-developing series which offer attractive cost/benefit equations: the new FIA Formula E Championship for open-wheel electric race cars; the Dakar endurance championship for off-roaders; the revitalised Rallycross series with its clever local participation and media options; and the FIA World Rally Championship, which is very strong in many developing markets.

Dakar, for example, already has five million live WRC spectators and a TV audience approaching one billion across 190 countries. Online streaming adds another five million just from YouTube. Rallycross is a completely re-modelled sport packaged specifically for TV with short races and wheel-to-wheel action. It attracts a young audience with local heroes, most notably in the US, Europe and Brazil. It is ripe for local engagement through social media and already attracts major global brands like Monster.

“The key point about these series is that, following the loss of tobacco and banking sponsorship in the major markets, they are being re-engineered with OEM benefits in mind,” says Taylor. “We are on the cusp of a new era in professional motorsport where the series owners design their events around the benefits needed by a new generation of savvy vehicle manufacturers, and affinity brands who understand how to use the materials it generates to engage with their audiences.”

But what is the likely cost? “We could develop a competitive rally cross car and run a two car team in ten events, covering the US, European and Brazil, for less than €2m [U$2.7m] a year,” says Taylor. A competitive Dakar entry, with events in Russia, South America, the Middle East and the US, would come in at around €6 million (USS$8.2m).

Richard Harrington

This article was first published in the Q4 2013 issue of Automotive World Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue