Virgin aims to become an ‘aspirational brand’ through Formula E sponsorship

With the first season of all-electric racing championship Formula E well underway, Virgin is looking to push its position as an environmentally friendly brand and a “people champion” through its sponsorship of the Virgin Racing team.

The Formula E championship, the first ever all-electric series that launched in Beijing last September, is an environmentally friendly alternative to Formula One, which is often criticised for its negative effect on the environment. It is also an effort to encourage people to drive electric vehicles in the future by making the technology “aspirational and sexy”.

In a move to tap into these values as well as the appeal of the sport, Virgin launched Virgin Racing, the only British team in the Formula E competition, which was spearheaded by Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Racing Team principal Alex Tai told Marketing Week: “In the Virgin Group we look to amplify our brand and bring through brand values. In this, we want to become an aspirational brand and be a people champion brand.

“Formula E does that. It looks after the planet and people, it’s young, aspirational and sexy – it has all of the elements a good sponsorship should have in sport.”

Lower-cost series attracting big names and sponsors

Tai, who also headed the launch of Virgin’s F1 team, says that potential sponsors for Virgin Racing are approaching the same level as Formula One, while the series has seen over 100 million viewers to date.

He believes this is due to the fact that the lower cost of Formula E allows to it have “the best drivers in the world”, such as Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird and Jaime Alguersuari.

“The ‘raison d’être’ of the series is the promotion of electric vehicles, but in doing that they have created a compelling sport and levelled the playing field by making it more accessible and winnable,” Tai says.

“Because F1 is so expensive to run, you might end up asking the driver to pay, and some governments are paying for drivers. However, it doesn’t cost much for a Formula E team, so teams can afford to pay some of the biggest salaries in professional motorsport.”

Despite the lower cost of running the series, Tai adds that Formula One budgets are much higher, something that has resulted in the FE series introducing a “cost cap”.

“This means that even if you have a lot of money you can’t spend it all – it’s all down to how smart you are in applying resources rather than how much you have to spend,” he explains.

He adds that electric cars can go at high speeds without running out of power and cost only “pence” to charge if adapted property.

Tai says that Formula E has allowed Virgin to be “entrepreneurs”, something the group is constantly looking to do.

“Formula One was great for us, and went on to 1.5 billion people 18 times a year, but it was difficult for us – we didn’t see how the technology would advance the man on the street,” he says.

“The idea of this is to develop the technology of electric vehicle that you or I might be driving in the future and to make people have an affinity towards it and show what its capabilities are.”

Driving fan participation through social

After racing in the likes of Malaysia, Uruguay, Argentina, Miami and LA throughout the season, the championship is now moving to Europe where it will conclude with a finale in London’s Battersea Park on 27 and 28 June.

“London is seen to be a progressive city now, and the series promoters wanted to finish with their biggest card,” Tai says, adding that it’s “unheard of” to race in one of the city’s parks.

In order to promote the events, the team has activated social media such as Twitter to talk to fans.

The team is also taking part in “Fan Boost” in order to drive fan participation, which gives spectators the ability to vote online for their favourite driver to give them an extra “speed boost” during the race.

“We’ve had tens of millions of people voting,” Tai says.

“We hope that viewership numbers will continue to increase and will become a more valuable media platform for a variety of brands to show their credentials.”