In a critical year for marketing drivers, here’s how NASCAR will tell their stories
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – It was NASCAR’s literal marketing machine in the bygone days of Bobby, Cale and “The King.”
As the traveling stock-car circus flitted between racetracks, a bulky telecopier was lugged along as the lifeline to wire services that ensured fans stayed abreast of results.
“You were always racing to fax the information out because you knew they weren’t necessarily going to cover you,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. “And then you had to rush to get the telecopier out of the press box and onto the truck to get to the next race. You had so little to work with, that was what qualified as marketing then. It was purely a regional sport, and you were begging anyone to talk to you.”
Entering Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500, NASCAR is well entrenched nationally, and its marketing machine metaphorically has become much more massive and sophisticated in the digitally and socially dominated savvy of 21st century America’s celebrity-obsessed culture in which personality is the coin of the realm.
On Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, drivers are posting virtually constant glimpses into their lives and minds, trying to balance the wide appeal of authenticity with the potential tone-deafness of oversharing.
Instead of a stilted photo shoot built around a staged yearlong campaign, a recent preseason production day was devoted to creating GIFs of stars being goofy and playfully interacting, storing the videos for a dynamic shot at going viral whenever the 2018 season’s first rivalry or winning streak emerged.
In the 20th-floor offices of NASCAR’s Charlotte tower, a driver marketing team staffed by dozens is crunching reams of repurposed analytical data on what fans crave, mapping out fresh approaches daily to help amplify storylines while sifting through media opportunities to place drivers in trendy TV spots and movies, often aimed at younger audiences.
And the practices are facing scrutiny like rarely before as a recent wave of departing superstars creates the need to introduce a fresh crop of heretofore unknown youth raised on a steady diet of smartphones and selfies.
It already has prompted the first quasi-controversy of the year with Kyle Busch questioning last month whether too much emphasis is being placed on promoting youth.
The 2015 series champion backtracked on those comments Wednesday after being included in a preseason marketing shoot that drew 17 Cup drivers, ranging in age from Jimmie Johnson, 42, to William Byron, 20.
Of course, the bulk of the group were Millennials such as Kyle Larson, 25, Chase Elliott, 22, and Ryan Blaney, 24. That’s the triumvirate mentioned most often as the heirs to the throne after breakout seasons in which Larson won a career-high four races, Blaney broke through for his first victory, and Elliott made the Round of 8 and emerged as the heavily favored Most Popular Driver successor to 15-time winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“There’s not a deliberate strategy to say we’re going to push all our chips in on the younger drivers and no other drivers matter,” NASCAR chief marketing officer Jill Gregory said. “I wouldn’t say at any time that it’s at the expense of a champion driver like a Kyle Busch who’s going to win races as long as he wants.
“We’re just really lucky this young group is compelling and winning races and have got a personality. We’d be silly and wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t putting emphasis on these young drivers, because when they start to win races like Kyle Busch, we want someone to know who they are.”
And there is urgency in a vacuum of household names leaving in a spate of retirements and sponsorship-forced departures. In the past three years, Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have exited, and Danica Patrick, the most famous and successful woman to race a stock car, will be gone after Sunday.
In their place are lesser known names such as Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman, Earnhardt’s 24-year-old successor in the No. 88 Chevrolet whose sponsor, Nationwide, recently started a video series to familiarize fans with the driver.
“You always push the young guys because we know the older guys,” Gossage said. “It’s my fault, but if Alex Bowman was sitting in this room with me right now, I wouldn’t know who he is. That’s my fault. I need to get to know him.
“I know everything about Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski. I need to know more about William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman.”
Said Jimmy Bruns, a senior vice president of client services at the GMR Marketing agency that counts Lowe’s, ExxonMobil, Miller and Xfinity among its NASCAR clients: “I think every sport always has this, your stars don’t play or drive forever. They move on, and a new, young crop comes in.
“I don’t think the sky is falling, but I feel like this year will be critical for younger drivers to come into their own. Just look at the success thus far at Daytona, and they are well on their way to a big year.”
Sunday’s Daytona 500 field will be the third-youngest in history at 32 years, 10 months (and would be the youngest ever without ARCA regular Mark Thompson, 66), and seven of the top 15 qualifiers are under 27. The race will feature 11 graduates of the NASCAR Next program (which identifies rising stars and begins marketing them early in their careers), including 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., the first African-American to start the Great American Race since 1969.
Driving the iconic No. 43 for seven-time champion Richard Petty, the brash Wallace already is the star of a new Facebook docuseries (which recently profiled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) that could garner the mainstream attention necessary to solidify a following at a time when many fans suddenly have become free agents.
“We’re now in this next cycle where the fans of Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt will still be fans of those guys, but they have to find the next guy on the track,” Greg Busch, president of BeSpoke Sports & Entertainment and a veteran of more than 20 years working with NASCAR brands. “Where do they migrate? NASCAR is fortunate that they’ve got an incredible group of young guys that are very different personalities and different styles of drivers. So there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to drivers right now. Everybody out there will find someone that fits their style.
“I almost equate it to golf, and everybody was worried about the Tiger Woods effect. I think we’re having the same thing with the Dale Jr. effect. But like we saw with golf, if you have enough players that are winning and all have personalities that aren’t all the same, you’ve got something to build off. This group of Larson, Blaney, Bubba and Chase, it’s strong enough to carry the sport into the next 10 years.”
NASCAR’s marketing strategy underwent a sea change about five years ago after a cadre of industry leaders met to discuss how to staunch the audience hemorrhaging while appealing to younger demographics. There were six planks identified in a blueprint to shore up the fan base, and one was “driver starpower,” which is a fancy way of saying, “Here’s why you should care about these guys and want to be like them.”
In that vein, the bedrock of the approach is targeted on showcasing diver personality, which NASCAR marketers like calling “the gateway drug” to fandom.
“We don’t need to promote NASCAR as a brand,” Gregory said. “We need to promote the drivers and storylines out of what we do on track. This evolution of world we live in of with everything being star or personality driven, that’s the big piece of it. So what we’ve been able to do is figure out what do fans want to know about stars and what makes them tick.”
After once building seasonlong slogans that relied on drivers mostly as setpieces (“How Bad Have You Got It?” and “These Guys are Good” were among the catchphrases of the past two decades and “Ready, Set, Chase” was the messaging in a series of 2016 playoff commercials with a slick, Jason Bourne-style theme), it’s shifted toward peeling back the layers of drivers’ firesuits – primarily through the social media channels that provide a direct link to fans. Whether it’s encouraging drivers to tweet their favorite Spotify lists or photos of their lists for the grocery store, there seem few limits on what fans want to know.
“They want to feel as close to the athlete and driver as they can be,” said Jonathan Gibson, the vice president of marketing communications at Team Penske. “They want to have a driver that’s aspirational and eventually have the ability to meet the driver and spend time with them. You look at today’s landscape, and what has changed is a high level of transparency and authenticity in the drivers. You know so much about your athlete or driver, which makes the authenticity so important.
“You have to be successful. I think from a personality perspective, you have to be charismatic. What’s also come about with the advances in social and digital is you have to be genuine and a good person. Whether it’s virtually or on site, you can really have access to your favorite driver 24/7. The access never has been greater.”
There are some platforms where drivers seem the most natural. In the view of NASCAR marketers, Jimmie Johnson owns Instagram, Brad Keselowski is dominant on Twitter, and Bubba Wallace is a Snapchat star. Other drivers are trying to gain footholds in other platforms: Austin Dillon has started a podcast that is videotaped for YouTube, where his brother, Ty, also is trying to build a foothold by hiring a videographer for a vlog this season.
Having grown up in the digital culture, the Millennial drivers are “natives” who are more likely to feel comfortable on social media but inherently are less accomplished on the track – which might feed the narrative suggested by Busch that younger drivers are benefiting from more exposure.
But it’s in part because a 30- or 40-something driver isn’t a good fit as a guest for MTV’s Ridiculousness (which had Wallace in 2016) or other youth-oriented programming as NASCAR tries to attract new fans (its research shows kids 8-12 are the age range most effectively targeted).
NASCAR has graphed drivers according to their interests to optimize media placement.
“One of the things in this refocus on starpower was to get very deliberate about what we ask (drivers) to do,” Gregory said. “Don’t put a driver who isn’t a natural on camera on Fallon. There are certain ones who are well suited and not. It’s our job not to put anyone in position to fail, so let’s not put a driver into a place they are out of their comfort zone, unless they ask us. There are many willing to put themselves out there, but many won’t.”
NASCAR also has tried to steer drivers toward posting about their personal items lives on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but on race weekends, keeping the focus on competition (Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s postrace Periscopes have been cited as a prime example).
Some executives privately cringed at a recent thread on Twitter about the state of a fraying basketball net on the hoop in the middle of the gated Daytona infield lot where drivers park their multimillion-dollar buses.
“I think there are some competing interests, as to what NASCAR would want these guys to be talking about, what the corporate sponsor would want, what they themselves want to talk about as humans,” Bruns said. “But if I were a corporate sponsor or NASCAR, I wouldn’t put too many guidelines or restrictions on that, because you do want them to shine through that. What I’d be concerned about is obviously the way in which these guys travel with private jets and other stuff, not many can relate to what they go through. But those things are necessary for their schedules. The No. 1 thing fans want is the behind-the-scenes things that you can’t get from watching the broadcast.
“The NBA is one of the hottest leagues out there now for a variety of reasons, but part of it is they have such great personalities that are able to shine on social media. They give guys freedom to be themselves.”
NASCAR also has assisted drivers in molding their images through informal immersion seminars at the marketing offices.
Some veterans (Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Earnhardt) – had established brands on their own, but help has been provided to others, such as Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne, with a direct line to Silicon Valley social media companies and Hollywood entertainment options (via NASCAR’s L.A. office).
Larson, well known for being consumed by racing so much that he races dirt tracks a couple dozen times annually, has embraced NASCAR’s goal of showing his family lifestyle (he and fiancée Katelyn Sweet are expecting their second child this year), placing him in multiple TV shows and movies.
Other drivers have been more assertive about their branding directions. Austin Dillon requested appearances on Rosewood and Nashville. Blaney is proactive about opportunities that position him as what some in the industry have described as a modern-day Tim Richmond but with flamboyance supplanted by 21st century nerd appeal (a la his love of Star Wars).
His popular Glass Case of Emotion (which garnered more than 1 million downloads in its first year of episodes with mostly irreverent and sometimes edgy discussions that frequently are tangential to NASCAR) originated with the Penske driver approaching NASCAR after being told by Dale Earnhardt Jr. he should start a podcast.
Blaney also had appearances in the movies Cars 3 and Logan Lucky, extending Penske’s reach into “the cultural fabric of America” that Gibson said his team’s sponsors like.
“NASCAR helps with non-endemic opportunities with movie placement and other platforms that aren’t as natural in what we do,” Gibson said.
NASCAR tracks the efficacy of its programs through the MVP Index (measuring social media relevance), E-Scores (which measure marketability of celebrities and athletes) and data on awareness, appeal and top attributes. Roughly 75% of its drivers had E-Score increases in 2017.
One of the best examples of how much corporate marketing has changed in NASCAR is what won’t be found in Sunday’s Daytona 500. For the first time in 36 years, there will be no beer company prominently adorning the hood and quarter panels (which comes on the heels of Coors Light vacating its pole sponsorship award).
It’s a stark reminder that the traditional avenues of driver promotion by retail-oriented sponsors – banners and driver standups in convenience stores and supermarkets – have faded after playing a major role in stock-car racing’s rise in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“NASCAR will tell you how they built it to this grand level, but the truth is it was the sponsors of races, of cars that really promoted it and made it a big deal,” said Gossage, who worked in marketing for Miller Brewing Co. three decades ago. “You have a race coming up in a market, all this NASCAR merchandise was in the stores for the consumer goods products a month before the race. The beers were definitely big back then. I’ve hung banners until my fingers bled. You went into a market and couldn’t avoid it.
“I walk into a convenient store or grocery store now and I don’t see nearly the activation that I saw 15 years ago and that’s a concern. You don’t see as much in-market activation because (sponsors) have to spend so much money sponsoring the team. There used to be a rule of thumb that whatever you spend sponsoring the car, you spend three to four times that in market. Nowadays with sponsorship so high it often times doesn’t leave money for activation of market. That’s where I’m afraid the sport may be selling itself short because that in-market activation was so critical to the growth of our sport. Basically you had all these various companies buying advertising and putting you in places that you couldn’t get into, and they were doing it free. That was so good for us.”
It also was good for stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose transcendence was achieved almost solely because primary sponsor Anheuser-Busch pushed its driver into mainstream media exposure.
But with most teams relying on myriad companies to defray the $20 million-plus costs per car, it’s caused the disappearance of the full-season sponsor that would provide the continuity of a driver appearing in a singular ad campaign buttressed by omnipresent retail presence.
Much of that supplemental promotional value now has become incumbent upon NASCAR, which responded with a large-scale expansion of its marketing department over the last several years. It also reclaimed its digital and social media rights in 2012 to build its leverage, and it’s seeking new ways to connect stars and teams to fans by focusing on undercovered facets of their lives and skillsets.
Unlike the NFL with its heavily exposed college football proving ground, there isn’t the same attention on racing’s ladder series. “It’s important to make drivers known and give someone a reason to care when Chase Elliott wins the Daytona 500 – ‘Oh, that’s the kid they’ve been waiting to win for a while,’” Gregory said. “There’s some knowledge of the storyline and the intrigue vs. having someone burst on the scene.
“A lot of what these drivers do isn’t known. When Baker Mayfield arrives to play in the NFL, everyone knows who he is. That’s been building. Some of it’s performance, some of it’s hype, but there’s a built-in system to have stars known before they burst onto the top scene. We’re trying to create some of that.”
Hendrick’s two young drivers, Bowman and Byron, recently spent a day with NASCAR marketing and social teams to provide some of that insight. Byron intricately dissected his style in relation to a famous former driver of the No. 24, Gordon.
Those comparisons might help in marketing drivers to fans who are seeking a 15- to 20-year commitment on finding new heroes to cheer.
“The older fan will be looking for the guy that fits a mold,” said Greg Busch of BeSpoke Sports. “If I was a Tony (Stewart) guy and a Dale Sr. before that, who in the young pack is a racer’s racer’s, drives hard and a workingman’s guy? The younger fan is going to be tied into ‘Who is most like me?’ That’s where the personalities like Blaney and Bubba that are fun, authentic and showing a lot of personality, digitally and socially based. That will go a long way in getting fans to understand who these guys are.”
There also could be merit in marketing the young drivers as a group similar to the “Young Guns” branding of the mid-2000s (Gregory said NASCAR has considered the idea but noted there are many more ways to showcase drivers now).
Gossage said he suggested to NASCAR that the Millennial brigade should be called “The New Kids On The Block” after the boy band that rocketed to prominence in the late 1980s.
“Each of them need to be marketed individually, but I’ve recommended to NASCAR that they market them as a group,” he said. “When I was a teenager, there were these young drivers at Nashville Speedway, and they called them the Kiddie Corps. Give them a name.”
Numbers instead of names will be the biggest driver of the marketing push this year for NASCAR, which created a new analytics and insights team to create its most granular look at what fans want by blending traditional metrics (TV ratings, attendance, buying habits) with fresh social media data from its Fan and Media Engagement Center.
NASCAR also is working to partner with VaynerMedia, a New York-based digital agency whose founder has advocated being more nimble about pushing visual content in real time. That’s a strategy NASCAR plans to continue to embrace.
“I think now content creation is if you have an extra 10 minutes on the way to the airport, there are people making names off that,” Gregory said. “The things drivers do on the way to the race car is very compelling. Having a driver willing to do things is much easier than a few years ago when it was you have to sit in front of the camera and do an interview.”
NASCAR also is planning to devote more energy to marketing its season in “chapters” by being more reactive to on-track storylines (e.g., if Martin Truex Jr. wins, sending a camera to his team’s shop in Denver, or emphasizing crew chief Cole Pearn’s Canadian background), or using GIFs and videos to highlight driver rivalries.
That’s an aspect of driver marketing that Kyle Busch endorses, singling out last year’s Denny Hamlin-Chase Elliott feud as a compelling example.
“That’s the action,” he said. “I think a lot of the sport is about storytelling and getting that story out there. And when it does go weeks at a time like that one did, it’s pretty good. It’s like, ‘What happens next?’ You have to tune in next week to find out.
“But we can’t script all this stuff, folks. It comes naturally a lot of the time. You still have to win, you still have to run up front and make a name for yourself.”