Few observers, even Formula 1 aficionados, could have expected a racing team owned by a soft drinks company to win a world championship so soon after becoming a team owner, let alone three in a row. But by the end of 2010, just six seasons after its takeover of the Jaguar team, Red Bull had notched up its first triumphs, beating McLaren to the manufacturers’ title as Sebastian Vettel became the youngest drivers’ champion, aged 23. They repeated both feats in 2011 and 2012.
When Red Bull first pulled into Formula 1 in 1995 as a partner of the Sauber racing team, the drinks company did so in the spirit of a challenger brand sponsoring a rank outsider. But in 2013, as an outright team owner for the past eight years, Red Bull is no longer the upstart but a ‘triple double’ champion, winner of both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships for the past three seasons running.
The team now has a new name for the 2013 season, which got under way on Sunday. It now competes as Infiniti Red Bull Racing, thanks to the Nissan-owned premium car maker Infiniti upgrading its endorsement to ‘title partner’ status. So has this transformation from underdog to favourite, as well as the close relationship with a luxury sponsor, altered how the brand of the racing team is seen?
Infiniti Red Bull’s head of marketing, Dominik Mitsch, admits things have changed since Red Bull first entered F1 team ownership in 2005 by buying the Jaguar team. Speaking to Marketing Week, he says: “We did what we knew best at the time, which was a lot of marketing activity with movie corporations for Star Wars and Superman, and looking at how Formula 1 was run at that time to see how we could turn it on its head and add something of our own to the sport.
Formula 1 is very cluttered with bands so we had to find our own little space
“Formula 1 is very cluttered with brands. There are a lot of them marketing so we had to find our own little space.” This season rival brand Burn, owned by Coca-Cola, will attempt to find its own space, re-entering the F1 market as a sponsor of the Lotus team after a decade of absence. It will add to the other energy drinks on the grid – TNT and Monster.
While such early success was a pleasant surprise, Mitsch claims that motorsport is in the blood of the team’s parent company, and winning was always the plan: “From a philosophy point of view, Red Bull never came into the sport as a team owner just to have a presence. Our goal was always to win the championship at some point but the fact we did it in our sixth season makes us very proud.”
He argues that even taken purely as a Red Bull marketing exercise, there would be no sensible way to approach F1 team ownership other than by providing the necessary resources to beat the competition on the track. “For global brand exposure, for seconds and minutes on TV, to make the sponsors happy and give them the right exposure in the sport, success is vital,” Mitsch says.
And ultimately it is the drivers that provide that success, as Infiniti Red Bull team principal Christian Horner tells Marketing Week. “The popularity of Formula 1 is extremely high at the moment and hopefully will continue to be, especially as we had a phenomenal year last year.
“Formula 1 is a soap opera, other than for two hours on a Sunday afternoon. There is a lot of interest in what goes on behind the scenes and the drivers are and should be the stars of the show. There are an awful lot of support acts as well.”
Indeed, despite Infiniti Red Bull’s obvious sporting competitiveness, marketing is ultimately why Red Bull is in F1 – it just happens to be a marketing campaign where no expense is spared. Given that the brand also recently funded Felix Baumgartner’s parachute jump from a hot air balloon in the stratosphere, that shouldn’t be surprising. The Red Bull Media House, a wholly owned subsidiary dedicated to the production of marketing and editorial content, uses both of these properties, as well as involvements in football, skating and other sports, to generate massive media exposure for the drinks brand.
He adds: “Infiniti Red Bull Racing and also our sister team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, are content assets for the wider world of Red Bull; be it the Red Bull Media House and its channels, be it trade promotions, be it on-pack promotions or just simply to have the Red Bull brand at the front of mind for the consumer.”
Each project has the same objectives of “brand recognition, brand image and ultimately sales” of the drinks, Mitsch says. It seems to be working, as Red Bull’s volume sales grew 13 per cent to over 5 billion cans in 2012 and its value sales by 16 per cent to €4.9bn (£4.2bn).
Mitsch says he has the same objectives, but while he has certain performance indicators, he is not directly measured by the number of cans sold. The brand strategy comes down from the brand’s head office, and the description he gives of his role is one primarily of a facilitator: “I am here to facilitate Red Bull’s and the sponsors’ requests, and to offer them a strong platform to exploit the sport and the sponsorship.”
Sponsorship is becoming increasingly important to the marketing function of the racing team, mainly as a result of Infiniti’s extended partnership. This has driven change in the way the team operates: more people are being recruited to deal with the increased level of media activity involving Vettel and fellow driver Mark Webber, for example, which Mitsch acknowledges is necessary to “honour the investment” of its top sponsor.
But Infiniti’s global director of F1 partnership, Andreas Sigl, doesn’t want to change the team too much. Infiniti Red Bull still wants to be seen as the “most open” racing team in the F1 paddock, even though it is also taking on more of the premium associations of the sponsor brand (see box, right). “We don’t want Red Bull to lose its edge, of being provocative”, Sigl says, although he admits that for Infiniti this carries the risk of “pissing some people off” or “being more polarising”.
He also says he wants the Red Bull brand to be equally prominent in the partnership, even though Infiniti’s logo has now taken over from the team owner’s in the prime position on the side of the cars.
“Even if we had the chance, we wouldn’t want to throw [Red Bull branding] off the car, because we want some of that to rub off on us and vice versa. I think it is now feeling some of the things we are doing. We want to bring some of the premium-ness to Red Bull Racing, so it’s more than just skateboarding and football tapes [being played in the race-day hospitality suites].”
It may be that the eight-year-old team has some growing up to do in the coming years.
It will be intriguing to see how that maturity sits with Red Bull, that most unconventional but ambitious of challenger brands.
The title partner Infiniti
Just a couple of years ago, Nissan’s luxury car brand Infiniti was in danger of being scrapped, as executive vice-president Andy Palmer revealed to car industry website WardsAuto in January. But times change and in 2013 it has been pushed to the forefront of one of the most prominent marketing properties of all – Formula 1 racing.
As title partner of the newly renamed Infiniti Red Bull Racing, Infiniti is building a closer relationship with the team. The partnership had previously been about raising awareness of the marque outside its original US market, as Nissan’s Palmer told Marketing Week last year (MW 30 August, 2012); but for 2013 the focus of the sponsorship has shifted onto influencing people’s opinions of Infiniti.
Andreas Sigl, global director of F1 partnership at Infiniti, says: “We want to go further down into prompting consideration, and make people understand what we stand for. Another objective is to be seen as more authentic than just stickers on the car. Those things play together.”
In order to improve perceptions, Sigl says that Infiniti needs to emphasise its qualities as a premium performance brand and not be seen as “vanilla”. This presents some difficulties because of the way it has previously catered to American tastes, which tend to value cars more for being spacious, powerful or comfortable than for how well they handle through a hairpin bend.
Infiniti thus saw a need to bring automotive influences from racing to its road car line-up, and duly let loose Infiniti Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel to specify his own model, the Infiniti FX Vettel. Sigl also plans to bring a more premium feel to the F1 race day experience, hoping to redesign aspects of the team’s suites in the racing ‘paddock’ to reflect Infiniti’s desired associations with hospitality.
Meanwhile, Infiniti engineers continue to contribute technical knowledge to Infiniti Red Bull, particularly around battery technology.
Basic familiarity with the brand still remains a major part of what Infiniti needs to achieve with its sponsorship, however, since unaided awareness in its newest markets where it wants to drive growth is in single percentage figures. With Infiniti’s brand now a part of the racing team’s name, it will hope to get more mentions on air and in print from F1 race coverage, and it should also be more visible. Infiniti’s was already the logo with the second-most TV exposure overall last season, according to Sigl, thanks to its position on the livery of Red Bull’s cars.
Title partnership means it now has the most prominent position on the side of the car, where Red Bull’s logo previously sat, suggesting that Infiniti could even push Red Bull into second place – a ranking it has not been accustomed to of late.