The change in Formula 1 regulations – new cars and new tyres above all – led to two spectacular races and record ratings. It was a risk that paid off, but one that was necessary if motorsport’s top series was to continue to remain relevant to the public and sponsors.
Sports marketing: communicating inside and outside your arena
As those working in the sector know, every sports property must direct its communication and promotion efforts in two equal and opposite directions.
On the one hand, the property – and it does not matter whether it is a club, a championship, a stadium, a sports league or a federation – must direct its actions within its natural area of insistence, to talk to its audience, interact with its stakeholders and generally give continuity to an existing relationship based on a common purpose.
On the other hand, the same property fights every day a tight struggle with other objects, bodies, organisations and external entities that insist on areas different and distant from its natural vertical of reference. It is a struggle for attention, for interest, for relevance and, last but not least, for screen time. This is all the more true and relevant the bigger and more globally interesting the property.
In essence, and to give an example that clears the field, a large football club must not only focus on its fans and investors, but must simultaneously fight for the attention of new consumers against other forms of entertainment, from video games to music, from cinema to tv series or social media.
This dual direction of marketing and communication, which is simultaneously inward and outward, is the key to a virtuous and successful balance, but also very difficult to find.
Forgetting to communicate internally means losing the hard core of your fans and moving away from your historical MVPs (Mission, Vision, Purpose). On the other hand, to stop communicating externally means locking oneself in a niche that no longer attracts new audiences and that leads, in the medium and long term, to the extinction of the product.
Theoretical hints aside, herein lies the great difficulty of any change: how to remain relevant to one’s own audience and become attractive to those who do not yet follow us? How to move towards modernity without betraying the heritage? And finally, how to find the new without throwing away the old?
If you think about it, it’s a cross-cutting drama for the world of marketing in general, constantly hovering between the present and the future: this is exactly what Product Life-Cycle Management is about, namely the strategisation of processes and actions to manage and guide the life cycle of a product or service.
Formula 1: Change to stay the same
As mentioned at the outset, product life-cycle management is all the more important the larger and more global the property. In a market that is absolutely transversal, planetary and multifaceted, not only is the ‘too big to fail’ principle not true, as it was believed to be a decade ago, but paradoxically, greater efforts to adapt are required of the most structured companies. This reasoning also applies, of course, in the field of sports marketing.
In this context, Formula 1 is one of the elite leagues, series and championships that attract most of the world’s attention. Together with the Premier League, the NBA, the NFL, the Champions League, MotoGP and tennis, the top motor racing series is rightfully positioned as one of the most extraordinary entertainers on the planet. In 2021 alone, the circus amassed 1.5 billion total viewers, 433 million unique viewers and almost 5 million spectators in the stands of the circuits over more than 20 races in 10 months (source: Nielsen for Formula 1- 2021). Staggering numbers that, as always, have the double face of success and responsibility.
It is in the light of what has been written so far, and with the spectre of a recent, not very simple past clearly in the rear-view mirror, that the great change that the top Formula has decided to undertake on several fronts for some time now should be interpreted, and which is only now showing its true colours.
A change that, for the sake of simplicity, we can divide into four points:
- Of production and media distribution
- Demographic and cultural
The changing Formula 1: the regulations
The rulebook, expressed at its most vigorous by the modification of the Rule Book this season, is certainly the most obvious of all the changes of skin in the world’s most famous four-wheel sport. Cars that return to ground effect, simplification of fluid dynamics to allow more exciting overtaking, lower temperature tyres and so on are in reality negligible details of a grand design that can be substantiated in a simple sentence: Formula 1 needs entertaining races, with lots of overtaking and great twists and turns.
But why do we say “negligible” details? What is clear is that the governing body of the sport is trying to banish the ghost of complexity to try to lower the barriers to entry for new spectators. A new user, and this is indeed a marketing problem, cannot have difficulty accessing the product because, if not sufficiently motivated, they will tire and turn elsewhere. A sport in which it is necessary to have a degree in thermodynamics and follow the race with a notebook is not a sport, it is a maths problem. Formula 1 knows this well. But it also knows that creating competitiveness – a subject that this blog has already covered in the past – is difficult, especially when there is so much technology at stake.
Hence the change in the rules, which, while leaving the complexities and details so beloved of fans (communication within the arena), offers a simple, intuitive and usable product for those approaching it for the first time (communication outside the arena).
It is clear that the satisfaction of both these audiences is the conditio sine qua non of the goodness of the toy and of these different viewing layers. The new user will be happy to see the overtaking and counter-overtaking between Verstappen and LeClerc, while the more enthusiastic will be able to speculate on the undercuts that are less performing now that the tyres come out of the garage at 70 degrees and not 160.
The changing Formula 1: production and media distribution
Drive to Survive, the hugely popular television series now in its fourth season, has been a masterstroke by the circus marketing departments. The TV product not only offers a more gossipy and tasty angle, capable of intriguing even a not necessarily sport-oriented audience, but has the double advantage of penetrating new niches of audience and lengthening the experience and the memory for brands, sponsors and manufacturers.
DTS is one of the many small and big changes that Liberty Media has brought on the product placement and product promotion front. A new logo, a new font, new graphics, new acronyms and new direction are added to a non-exhaustive list of different touches to a sport that has changed its face in just a few years.
Here it is necessary to understand the holistic role of quality integrated communication. It is clear that a new logo in itself brings nothing to the cause. However, it is also true that a brand image that corresponds to a modern language and is in step with the times is important in order to align itself with a visual habit that is changing more and more frequently (it is not by chance that the Premier League also renewed its logo and colour palette a few years ago – both beautiful).
The changing Formula 1: Geographies
Borders, both physical and otherwise, are a dominant theme of all the world’s top sporting properties. Moving from saturated markets to expanding markets is a necessity for sponsors, stakeholders and for finding new audiences. This concept is as intuitive as it is difficult to put into practice, for reasons of logistics, timing and economics (as the National Football League, which for years has been experimenting with bringing a team to London and bringing the world’s least famous oval ball to the old continent, knows).
Liberty, FOM and the FIA have a jigsaw puzzle on the table with several pieces to put together that do not necessarily fit together. On the one hand, there is Europe’s cultural hegemony and legacy with regard to the Formula 1 product, which has its birthplace and most of its teams in England, Italy and the central European area. On the other hand, there is a need to shift the centre of gravity towards areas with greater room for manoeuvre and more money, namely the Middle East. Thirdly, there is the realisation that a truly global product cannot fail to have traction, following and interest in the United States. Finally, that there are less than forty weeks of the year available (if breaks are taken into account, of course) and moving cargo and materials takes time and organisation.
The extension of the calendar to 23 races, with the introduction of tracks such as Saudi Arabia (2021) and Miami (2022) and Las Vegas in 2023, alongside a solid group of historic circuits, goes precisely in this direction.
For the reasoning given above on the two directions of communication, it is clear that the circus cannot get rid of tracks that represent the beating heart of the sport, such as the Belgian jewel of Spa or the fast Brianza track of Monza, unless it seeks hara-kiri. But it is also clear that the economic fortunes of the top Formula cannot be based on an increasingly stationary Central Europe from the monetary point of view, but must find new verve in more sparkling and exploding markets such as those of the Middle East. It is not possible to extend the calendar forever, although there are already those who are calling for 30 races, but certainly the extension of the map and the return of great classics such as Imola are excellent news for sponsors and investors.
The changing Formula 1: demographics and culture
This is perhaps the most difficult, intangible and delicate aspect of our reasoning. Yet, for the same reasons, it is perhaps the most important. If it is indeed easy to identify changes in the regulations or to appreciate the lengthening of the calendar, it is difficult to account for a change that is as much cultural as it is demographic.
The two, as is easily understood, go hand in hand.
As an international marketing platform, a hugely popular sport and a long-standing flagship of the entire automotive industry, Formula 1 needs to present itself to the world with an ethical, cultural and image roster that is absolutely first-rate. The large amount of space dedicated in recent years to Black Lives Matter, the attention paid to the social issues of inclusion and diversity, and the highly international scope are clear proof of this. The fact that it is not just about sport is all too obvious. Like any great entertainer of modernity, the top open-wheel series must also embrace the role of great educator. Like it or not, agree with it or not, this is what modernity dictates to the big corporations and the big players. This is especially true when it comes to motorsport, traditionally a discipline that has had to deal with issues such as locker room machismo and which today is trying, as NASCAR is struggling to do, to shake off the dust of the provincial garage.
Alongside this is the overbearing theme of the new generations. Hyper-connected and with a formidable but elusive attention span, accustomed to multimedia, to multi-screen and profoundly linked to an aesthetic, that of the video game and digital, which has been largely revolutionised. Pushing hard on social media, trying to speed up productions, building characters around the protagonists that are very similar to the heroes (or antagonists) of a TV series, giving everything a videogame patina are some of the cards in the deck played by Formula 1.
Verstappen’s Red Bull single-seater, which stops at the end of the race on an amazing luminous and interactive platform, while a 4K drone films the Arabian night, illuminated by phosphorescent neon, fireworks and dream landscapes, is the umpteenth proof of this leap, which is as much generational as it is intentional. This is not just sport, but the most beautiful spectacle in the world.
The future to come
This season’s Formula 1 has so far delivered what it promised.
Exciting races with cars that are finally able to overtake and fight at every corner, dreamlike scenery on visually extraordinary tracks, widespread competitiveness and numerous twists and turns brought about by a change in regulations to which not everyone, especially among the most prestigious teams, has been able to adapt.
It is unrealistic to think that the level of spectacle offered so far will remain so for the next 21 outings. On the other hand, it is useful to appreciate the fact that this is not a random exploit, but the result of a sensible direction and a clear strategy, which can reassure sponsors, insiders, stakeholders and protagonists. A long-term strategy whose main objective is to ensure the future of the circus among the world’s top sports and entertainment platforms, fighting in the two directions mentioned at the beginning of this article with the same, renewed effectiveness.