Red Bull and Heineken: F1 marketing overhaul is starting to pay off

Beer brand praises sport's new 'accessibility' after end of Bernie Ecclestone era.

F1: Chemical Brothers created 'world's shortest remix' for three-second ad
F1: Chemical Brothers created 'world's shortest remix' for three-second ad

Formula One is making good progress in modernising its appeal to fans and brands, according to an Advertising Week Europe panel featuring representatives from the sport’s owner, a sponsor and a team owner.

Yath Gangakumaran, director of corporate strategy and business development at F1, told the audience that F1's global TV audience had increased by 10% in the two years since Liberty Media took control from then chief executive Bernie Ecclestone and other shareholders.

Gangakumaran was also pleased that the proportion of fans who are female had grown from 31% to 36%, although he admitted after the event that the average age of fans (40) had not come down.

In an effort to recruit female and younger fans, the new F1 regime has launched an esports offshoot and allowed Netflix access to shoot a documentary, Drive to Survive, telling the story of last season. The cameras are in again this season.

Oliver Hughes, head of marketing at F1 team Red Bull Racing, praised Liberty’s stewardship.

"Before Liberty bought the sport, it was literally run by an old man and a bunch of lawyers and accountants," he said. "Launching into esports would never have happened in Bernie’s era. He would have launched an esports platform and charged me a million pounds to take part."

A similar comparison was made by Heineken’s representative on the panel, Ben Pinkus at the brand’s sponsorship agency, Black Sheep Sponsorship.

"With Bernie’s team, generally the answer was no, regardless of what the question was," Pinkus said. "Now we’re a much more visible presence at race weekends. The sport has become much more accessible both from a sponsor and fan perspective."

Pinkus went on to say the deal with F1, which started in 2016, compared favourably with Heineken’s other partnerships, which include the Uefa Champions League, the Rugby World Cup and James Bond films.

"I don’t think we expected the level of access we can give to customers and consumers. In F1, you feel like you’re in the dressing room. You don’t get that close at a UCL game or a Rugby World Cup final.

"Also the fact that we can physically activate the brand across 21 markets on five continents annually is really unique. As bizarre as it might sound, it’s relatively cost-effective when you compare it to other international properties."

Pitching for further sponsorship business, Gangakumaran said that now would be "the best time" for a sponsor to join up with F1 because it is set to become more competitive.

"Over the past five years, there has been Mercedes domination, but in 2021 there will be a complete rewrite of the regulations that will level the playing field."

He was pleased that F1 is no longer playing catch-up with other sports when it comes to digital, with 50 million unique users for its website and app, plus 20 million social media followers.

Gangakumaran mentioned a number of plans for the near future, including conducting a big research project on Generation Z, in tandem with other rights holders.

It is also close to announcing "an interesting capsule collection with a pretty high-end urban brand" and is looking in some cases to stretch experiential activity around individual races to include a week-long procession of fan events, food festivals and concerts.

The panel was chaired by Rachel Brookes, the Sky F1 presenter.

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