The start of the season this Sunday (16 March) in Melbourne, Australia will reintroduce a sport that has gone back to the drawing board with regulation changes to car engines designed to make it more competitive.
Uncertainty around the future of Formula One’s commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone following bribery allegations has also piqued interest at a time when the sport’s international expansion continues.
Russia is scheduled to host its first Grand Prix later this year, while the Red Bull funded Austrian Grand Prix circuit is to return after an 11-year absence.
Despite the growth, some of the smaller teams have expressed funding concerns citing falling television numbers as several European markets including the UK adopt pay-television models.
The worries have been compounded by the lack of high-profile commercial deals ahead of this weekend’s inaugural race as well as the absence of Vodafone, which ended its seven-year tie to McLaren last March.
Last year there were five major brand announcements including Blackberry and Rolex, whereas Martini and Esquire are the two biggest brands to have confirmed deals so far. For those new commercial partners the upcoming season is a chance to align themselves with the teams and drivers set to dominate the sport for years to come.
Bacardi-owned drinks brand Martini is hoping the strategy bares fruit through its title sponsorship of the Williams team. The alcohol maker has signed a five-year, $15m (£9m) per season deal in the hope of fueling the former world champions’ attempts to recapture past glories. Martini, which plans to stress its commitment to responsible drinking through the tie-up, will primarily focus efforts on expanding in Europe and its global travel retail offering. The drinks business will share Facebook, Twitter and Instagram content about the team and its drivers ahead of each race.
Sandy Mayo, senior global category director of vermouth and sparkling wines at Martini, says: “It’s those types of experiences and access that will set us apart from other Formula One sponsors and cement the brand’s place in the hearts and minds of consumers. With the brand more focused than ever before on the lifestyle passions of its consumers there is no better time for Martini to return to Formula One.”
Hearst has also signed a one-year deal with the UK-based team that will see it develop branded content for its men’s lifestyle Esquire print, online and social media platforms. The publisher is using the Williams brand to push the title to new markets.
Nigel Geach, senior vice president for Motorsport at sports marketing consultants Repucom, which is working with Formula One organisers on its rights evaluations, says further deals are on the way. More FMCG brands will come on board to exploit what could be the season Red Bull cedes its four-year grip of the sport, he adds.
“Viewing figures fell towards the end of last season because of Red Bull’s dominance. Pre-season testing shows the championship could come down to the wire and that could help really benefit the brand value of sponsors, teams and the drivers”, he adds.
The prediction is reflected in the social cut-through from the sponsors of the top five teams (see graph) ahead of the opening race. Research from Way to Blue reveals the Red Bull Racing team’s sponsor Infiniti dominated online chatter in the UK with 63 per cent of mentions between the start of the month and yesterday (13 March). The brand association is yet to convert into sales, however, with purchase intent for Infiniti only reflected in 4.59 per cent of mentions, the second lowest out of the group.
Ferrari sponsor Shell scored the highest in terms of intent to purchase with 31.42 per cent suggesting its association with cars has led to strong demand. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s energy drink Burn ranked second out of the top five with 14.74 per cent indicating this is a sport that other FMCG brands could do well from.
Intent to Purchase
The excitement around the upcoming season bares similarities to the soap opera that has shaped the 2013/14 Premier League. Time will tell whether the racing brands are able to push harder than their football counterparts to maximise return-on-investment.