A few weeks ago I e-mailed Keith who seems to be in the middle of all office pools at my employer and suggested that we organize an Indy 500 pool. The main office is in Stamford Ct, so I had to convince Keith that this 500 thing was a big deal and worthy of his effort. After a couple e-mails, one announcing the pool, and a second to clarify some basic facts about the 500 (like Jeff Gordon wasn’t involved) we got a group of participants pony-ing up the $5 entry fee. Names were drawn and other than Todd who proclaimed “I got the hot chick in the commercials during my hockey games” everyone asked a question that could be boiled down to “Who is this guy?”.
This is one of the current challenges the IRL has. Name recognition of it’s participants. Once you get past Danica, Helio and the lingering recognition of the Andretti name we have a series of anonymous heroes and participants. Needless to say this is one of the reasons that the series has trouble attracting sponsors. But the funny thing here is that our drivers are not bland or uninteresting. I took some time to tell the pool entrants about their driver and as I did it became clear that the background story for many of our drivers appealed and resonated with people who an hour earlier has never heard of their pick.
The IRL does what it can to get drivers out in front of people. I would be surprised if other series make ALL of its drivers available for autograph sessions on race weekends. On air appearances for various drivers on local radio and television are frequent and productive.
A big partner the IRL potentially has here is Versus. To introduce the IRL to its audience, Versus created a series of “flying IndyCar” crash spots that were all over it’s network and purchased time to put them on some others. This was followed by the “Danica Strapped to a rocket ship” interview-mercial. This is now followed by another interview-mercial featuring Scott Dixon. The plan here is sound, introduce the series to the audience, associate it with its biggest star and then start identifying some of the other key figures in the series.
Some suggestions I would have for the Versus spots going forward…
First, the interviews in these spots are about the racing. I think the topic of these needs to change a bit. There is a well known book about building consumer brands titled “Lovemarks”. The basic principle is that people associate with brands and become advocates for those brands because there is an emotional attachment to the brand in question. This needs to be the strategy that Versus and the IRL begin to take with marketing their stars, and that begins by telling the stories of these drivers. The Versus spots need to feature the featured driver talking about their hopes and dreams with their careers. Hopes and dreams appeal to the casual, transient fan at a much more emotional level than does how intense the racing is, which is really fodder for the already converted.
Second, dig deeper into the driver pool to find the best most compelling stories. Graham or Marco talking about following in their father’s footsteps. Sarah talking about balancing her career as an owner and driver. TK Talking about the race he hasn’t won. Paul Tracy “The Wrestler” (as dubbed by Townsend Bell) talking about finding that one last shining moment to end a career. Tell Will Power’s story the week before one of his cameo appearances this season. The more the merrier. If people know the background story for a driver, they will begin to care about the driver and they will follow the driver through the races.
Third, don’t stop with the IRL level drivers. Dig into the Lights series as well. There is a great crop of future stars driving in that series today. Additional recognition will help them associate with the sponsors that can carry them into a ride in the big cars. Again the stories here are key – who wouldn’t love to hear JR Hildebrand’s story? Having gone to school at a premier engineering school myself (Carnegie-Mellon), his deferment from MIT has me on the verge of a man crush.
Fourth, plan to layer and target these spot placements strategically. The spots featuring the most well known personalities should go into the paid slots on other networks. The Versus hockey fan knows who Danica is by now, The spots on Versus itself should now start digging deeper into the driver ranks. But not during the race broadcasts themselves, your broadcasts are wonderful and often serve that purpose already. During the race broadcasts is where the spots featuring the Lights drivers should run, introducing the IRL series fan to the next generation of drivers.
Finally Seek out alternative media to place these spots or ads. Generally these placements are lower cost than broadcast television, but when well placed can be as powerful. Obviously the internet is a place to start but how about in the preview reel of a summer blockbuster in a market that will be hosting a race in the next month? How about telling Ryan Hunter Rea’s story behind the Times Square billboard on the tv screens that are in all the NYC cabs these days? Lord knows I am tired of the Smith and Wollenski ads…
The IRL now has a broadcast sponsor who cares about the series which is a far cry from where things were a year ago. With a little thought towards the richness of the participant pool this partnership can be a big tool to help build a driver lineup whose name recognition runs deep.