F1ring on all cylinders

GOKUL KRISHNAMURTHY | Updated on September 14, 2011

On with the show: David Coulthard (right) flags off the F1 show run on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai, October 2009 - Photo: Daniel Grund

Mr. Kumar Ramanathan, Chief Marketing Officer, Vodafone Essar Ltd

Mr Mohit Beotra, CMO, Bharti Airtel

Mr Ravikant Sabnavis, VP, Kingfisher Airlines

Mr Satyapal Unnikrishnan, COO, Polestar Content

For brands vying to connect with youth, F1 racing promises a good platform, especially now that it is set to debut in the country.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October 2009. The weather was pleasant; the sea was calm. The sea link connecting Bandra and Worli in Mumbai was not — thanks to an inspired marketing effort by Red Bull Racing.

Former F1 racer David Coulthard spun the Red Bull racing car around and drove the cheering crowd into a frenzy. As he zipped across the stretch, a chopper captured the action from above, to be amplified soon after on the Web worldwide. The local media, as one would expect, lapped up the spectacle of speed.

Formula 1 promotions are not new to India. If Red Bull brought in Coulthard, Vodafone has brought down Lewis Hamilton of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 team several times since 2008, and has even organised contests, offering winners a chance to ride with the F1 racer.

Force India, the ‘Indian' Formula 1 team owned by Vijay Mallya, has been building a fan base for the sport — and its team — since 2007. It was the first to launch a reality show around F1, ‘ The Fast and the Gorgeous', which is now in its second season. This year, there are more reality shows around F1, including those from Vodafone and Airtel, which is the presenting sponsor of the Indian Grand Prix scheduled for October 30. The telco's association with the property will be for three years.

Thanks to the Indian Grand Prix, the dynamics of leveraging brand associations with F1 has more takers and more dimensions.

Hero Motors has announced it will sponsor Narain Karthikeyan as he races on the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida for the Hispania Racing Team. The association is only for the Indian Grand Prix. Mahindra's Scorpios will officially serve as intervention and support vehicles to the Circuit for five years, starting with the Indian Grand Prix. More brands are in the fray in a myriad ways and the competition is getting stiffer.

Growing the Game

Beyond the Indian context, the Airtel Indian Grand Prix (IGP) is expected to be a game-changer for Formula 1 itself.

Ravikant Sabnavis, Vice-President — Marketing, Kingfisher Airlines (which handles marketing for Force India), notes that the viewership numbers for the sport are likely to grow with the introduction of the Indian race.

He says, “We believe that F1 viewership is going to leapfrog with IGP. Formula 1 has a small but rapidly growing following in India. Of the 527 million viewers last year, less than 10 million would have been from here. We saw the same numbers in China before the race was introduced there in 2002. Now it is close to 90 million.”

Sabnavis predicts that Indian audience numbers will reach 90 million much faster than in China, going by the past experience with Indian audiences and event properties. The Force India team also believes that being the only Indian team on the grid, and having the advantage of an early start, it will benefit from the Indian Grand Prix.

Satyapal Unnikrishnan, COO, Polestar Content and Media, was closely involved with the marketing of the Force India F1 team in his previous assignment. He says the Indian Grand Prix will renew interest in motor sports in India with good reason.

“When Narain Karthikeyan came into the limelight, we saw interest in the genre increasing, and the same has been the case with Karun Chandok — we saw more Go-Karting tracks coming up, more people taking it up. The Force India team provided a spike to interest in motor sport and to Formula 1. The Indian Grand Prix will get the buzz going all over again,” notes Unnikrishnan.

The number of brands evangelising the sport while promoting their teams or their association with the sport is expected to catalyse the growth of Formula 1 followers.

Telco Race on GP Track

For Airtel, title sponsor of the IGP, this is yet another avenue to engage with sports other than cricket that are becoming popular with young Indian audiences. It has signed a five-year deal with Manchester United to provide content and engagement opportunities for its subscribers in India, Sri Lanka and Seychelles in 2009. With Formula 1, this is a first for the brand.

Mohit Beotra, Chief Marketing Officer, feels the timing is right. He says, “There is heightened awareness of other sports, including Formula 1; Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and Vijender Singh are all at the forefront now. Before the race came to India, it didn't make sense for us to sponsor it as a large part of the input would have been wasted.”

Beotra notes that the stature of brand Airtel allows a fit with the Formula 1 property. According to him, it may not be appropriate for brands just because they are large, a fact seconded by those closely watching the business of Formula 1.

Unnikrishnan explains that it only makes sense for brands with a global footprint, including markets where F1 has a large following, and for brands looking at the long term, to sponsor teams — the scale is such. One-off engagements will have to be backed by on-ground activations to realise the value of that investment, he notes.

On Airtel's sponsorship of the IGP race, he says, “It's perfect. Airtel is a home-grown Indian brand and Formula 1, which has a growing base in India, is coming to India for the first time. Youth, which forms a key part of the F1 following, is a key segment for Airtel.”

Credit for growing the F1 fan base in India must go to the Force India, Vodafone and Red Bull teams and the marketing efforts of the brands' India offices. With the title sponsorship of the IGP, Airtel gets an opportunity to catch up with its category competitor Vodafone, which has looked to cement its association with Formula 1.

With more brands associated with the race, including competition, will Vodafone's association with Formula 1 during the IGP be challenged?

Says Kumar Ramanathan, Chief Marketing Officer, Vodafone Essar, “I don't see that as a challenge at all. As a brand, Vodafone is deeply entrenched with Formula 1 and this is a property we have been associated with for a few years. Even before the decision to bring the race to India was made, we had been doing campaigns. Today, the Formula 1 fan is a fairly engaged person. He or she, in all probability, would be seeing almost all the races. We are very well connected there.”

He says the IGP will bring in new audiences, and believes they would be addressed by the brand's activities — including a contest through which the logo of a small/medium enterprise will find its way on to the Vodafone Mercedes McLaren car at the IGP.

“Our engagement with the sport is not geographical or city-based. The audience would see sustained engagement with the brand through the sport, much more than anybody else,” reiterates Ramanathan.

The title sponsorship was something Vodafone passed on, according to its marketing head. “Either we choose to engage with the property in depth, or we don't. In this case, there was a title sponsorship. In our assessment, the cost of that sponsorship, for an event of this nature, and given the target group, did not make economic sense.”

Brands with a stake in Formula 1, and some others with a stake in the youth audience (largely in the metros), are eyeing the Indian Grand Prix. Whatever the nature of the association, with more brands in the fray, each one will have to get innovative with its engagement platforms. And the most effective of these involve experiential marketing with media amplification, including social media. The latest we've heard is the Red Bull Blogger Hunt. There will be more leading up to Indian motor sports' biggest race day.

(To be continued)

Published on September 14, 2011

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