In the mid-1980s, my wife, daughter and I moved to Southern California from Vancouver, Canada. I had a little office in a plaza and beside my office was a place that made ceramic teeth. One of the technicians in there greeted me one morning with a 4×6 photo of an open-wheel race car. An ex-Stuart Hayner/Wilbur Bunce Lola T320 Super Vee to be exact. He asked me if I wanted to buy it.
I didn’t know that I was in the market for a race car but apparently I was.
I only drove it once, but found fascination in the concept that this ‘thing’ could be used as a marketing conduit to sell stuff. My first sponsorship deal ever was with Circle Porsche Audi in Long Beach. I negotiated a parts discount for our race team in exchange for putting their logo on the massive rear wing of the Lola.
And so it began.
We moved back to Canada shortly thereafter and I gave the Lola back to the guy I had bought it from. Key word; “gave”. This would not be the last mistake that I made in motorsports.
I became consumed with motorsports as a marketing tool. I wanted to pursue this and did so with a passion. My ascent up the motorsports ladder was not unlike a driver’s. I started doing sponsorship deals in Formula Ford 1600s, then FF2000, Formula Atlantics, Canadian Superbike and more.
Creating an Indy Lights proposal for Jim Russell instructor Steve Wester in the early 90s got me into Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the rest is history.
The Steve Wester No Fear/Q107/Jim Russell/Big Brothers of Canada Buick March Wildcat
Fast forward to today, and I have to admit that I am disappointed, but not surprised, by what I am seeing in the sponsorship game in motorsports.
I think we are regressing.
There are some pretty common misconceptions that are still prevalent in motorsports marketing. We are a good 40 – 50 years into the business of sponsorship in racing, and we just should not be seeing some of the things that are happening today. We should be well past them.
Here are a few disappointing examples;
1) Run Good and We’ll Get Sponsored
Really? Do you still believe this? Ask Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse how they feel about that. How about Raphael Matos who has won a Championship at every level he has raced at – except the latest; IndyCar. Of all the misconceptions in the marketplace, this is the one that I wish were true. This is the one that fosters “ride buyers” and with ride buyers, the sport loses all credibility. “But Jim, as long as there has been racing, there have been ride buyers, and that’s the way it is.” I agree that this is the case, but the fact is that the best drivers are not ‘in the game’, and until they are, there is a credibility problem. But I digress…
Even SPEED thinks that all you gotta do is ask…
“Running good”, on its own, has never led to a sustainable marketing communications program. You still have to build on- and off-track strategies that solve business problems, such as increasing sales or proof-of-concept for your technology, as examples. Every single race team in the history of racing that has “run good” has lost sponsors. Seeing Roush Fenway and Penske Racing cars running around with words like “Roush” or “Penske” on them is all the proof that you should need. Last week, Kasey Kahne sat on the pole at the Martinsville Cup race with HendrickCars.com plastered all over the car. Not only do these teams “run good”, but Jack and Roger and Rick have a few connections and can get a meeting or two as required. They also have incredibly sophisticated marketing and sponsorship procurement departments. On the flip side, I could name lots of drivers who do not “run good” but have plenty of sponsors. If you think about it, they are also “ride buyers”. They are just using someone else’s money instead of perhaps family money. The companies that are buying rides for these drivers don’t care how they run. They have other assets that the sponsor finds appealing.
2) It’s My Passion!
“I love racing!”… or… “It’s my passion”… or “I just want to win!”. If you ever use words like “I, me or my” in your proposals, make sure they are followed with – as an example – “I only care about how I can provide measurable return on your marketing investment.” Or “My goal is to be a cost effective conduit between you and your desired client base”. … or… “This proposal is not about me, it’s about you.” And if the company says to you; “Great!… how are you going to do that?”, your answer cannot be; “You can sponsor my race car!! Woooo-hooooooo!” You need to understand the challenges that the company you are talking to is faced with, and you need to know how to use racing-centric assets to fix that problem. You need to be a student of marketing and have a deep insight into how companies operate. Having said all of this, and to the detriment of most, there are drivers that get a ‘ride’ by running good. Every time that a driver wins a Championship and then gets a full-time paid ride, everybody stops learning about business and puts all of their focus back into “running good”.
3) All I Need To Do Is Tell Them That I NEED A Sponsor!
The icing on the “sponsorship is regressing” cake has been Kenny Wallace’s recent performance on Twitter. There’s no denying his passion, his sincerity, his accessibility or his desire. He is what he is, and that’s why so many love him. But what he is doing… ‘tweeting for $$$’, is in my opinion…. ummm…let’s just say a step backward. Especially when you consider his tenure in the sport and his family’s influence and reach in the sport. Remember, his brother – and NASCAR Champ Rusty – had to shut down his racing operations because he was unable to provide a value proposition as a sports marketing platform for corporate America. Can you imagine the number of decision makers and influential people that the Wallaces have met over the years??
I think that Kenny Wallace will get someone to “sponsor” him. Someone will step up and give him $25K or $50K to say that they did it, get their hot pit pass and live the dream. But unfortunately, this model is not sustainable and it’s gonna end in tears.
Are there wealthy people that will spend their hard-earned money to support racing? Yes, of course there are. For the most part, they are called “team owners”. These guys invented the well-known slogan; “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large one.”
Are there companies that could benefit from a well-executed motorsports marketing program? Of course there are…. but sponsoring you because it is your passion does not provide a sustainable business model.
Are there any companies left in the world that have NOT been pitched to sponsor a driver, rider, team, race event or series? I doubt it…. and unfortunately, most of those proposals are so bad that it will take many years, and countless success stories to get them to reconsider. Those bad proposals allow companies to actually have a written policy that states; “We do not sponsor racing.”
So…. what to do?
Become a student of marketing. Where do companies invest their marketing dollars? And why? How do they measure it? Who is their target audience? Once you know these answers, you need to be able to create a motorsports marketing program that meets all of their objectives, do so for less money than they are investing now, and with a measurably better return on investment. No problem!
Stop thinking that you are in the advertising game. Do you really want to compete with a billboard along the highway that works 24/7? Does a billboard have the costs that you have? Namely, a 53 foot tractor-trailer, 2 – 12 race cars, full-time employees and a rock star driver with needs? If you are playing the game by counting eyeballs, you’re done. Your program has to have a positive effect on every aspect of a potential sponsor’s business, not just some exposure metric where frankly, you can’t compete.
Stop looking for sponsors and look for value. Sponsors are everywhere. If there was a list of the Fortune 5000 (five thousand) companies in North America, my guess is that 99% of them sponsor something. You think that the only reason that they are not sponsoring you is because they do not know how badly you want to race…. and win. You are mis-guided. They are not sponsoring you because you have not provided them with a motorsports-centric solution to their specific business problem(s). You have not provided enough value. There are 100s of success stories where companies used motorsports marketing successfully. Study them. Find the case study of how Coca-Cola replaced all of the Pepsi (and other branded) vending machines outside of Home Depot stores in the USA. It is a fantastic, measurable success story that shows how motorsport was the conduit to a terrific opportunity for Coke.
Pull your head out of the sand regarding how hard this is. In the old model, all you had to do was show 3rd party data on your demographics, show your racing schedule, include a fancy graphic to show here their logos go…. and ask the simple question: “Would you like to sponsor me?” In today’s model, you have sponsors like Red Bull who are saying; “Your property (team, driver, series, event) does not address my business objectives so we will just go ahead and create, own and manage our own events and properties. We will also own the distribution rights and we’ll even go out and find other companies to sponsor our events.” This control over assets and audience is becoming more and more prevalent. And let me repeat…. they are getting sponsors – who could be sponsoring you – to sponsor them. They are taking those marketing dollars out of circulation. Does this concern you? It should.
The model; “Would you like to sponsor me so that I can win races and live my dream….??” is over. By employing this as your strategy, you are setting all motorsports back and closing the door for future opportunities.
Just stop it.
And for sure…. stop twittering about it.
Shouldn’t Twitter sponsor Kenny? or maybe God could sponsor Trevor, they seem close? and what is the OrangeCone anyway??? I’m confused Jim, where can these drivers find value to fuel their teams? They seem to have passion, and really really big houses, boats and motor coaches… have they misplaced their value somewhere in their guest rooms?
Phil you are talking about mixing business finances and personal finances, when you start doing that you start running risks.
But didn’t they acquire their personal finances through success on the track…because they are/were drivers with talent and/or passion?