Racing towards a winning formula
As McLaren turns 50, brand director John Allert talks about life after Lewis Hamilton and widening its appeal with Sergio Perez.
Marketing Week (MW): Mexican Sergio Perez is replacing Lewis Hamilton as a driver next season. Is Hamilton a loss to the McLaren brand?
John Allert (JA): I’d be a fool to say I’m pleased to see Lewis go because he is undoubtedly a global star and a fantastic driver. But Sergio gives us a potential new audience and a link to the Central and Latin American market, which we’ve not been exploiting to the maximum over the past four or five years.
Although we’ve had a fantastic pedigree of South American drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Juan Pablo Montoya and Emerson Fittipaldi, who was our first world champion, this is a completely new generation. In the next decade, Mexico will have the seventh-largest GDP in the world and Sergio is already the second-biggest sports star in Mexico.
MW: It has been reported that Hamilton was unhappy about the time commitments demanded by McLaren’s sponsors. Did that play a part in his departure?
JA: With all Formula 1 drivers, including Lewis, the more successful they become the more choosy they are with the marketing and PR activities that they like doing. The reality of the business model in Formula 1 is that partners invest in a team. That investment is tied up in both the team and the key people within the team, including the drivers.
The issue for Lewis was the desire he had to write a chapter of his own making. He had been with us effectively since he was 11 years old and he’s now 28, so I think that was a natural part of growing up. That’s how he expressed it to us in his farewell speech.
The other part of Lewis’ ambitions lie in the development and cultivation of his own brand in areas of business in which we don’t operate - the entertainment and music industries. The way we work is that we have all of the image rights of our drivers, as do some other teams. The deal Lewis struck with the Mercedes team allows him to better, and more aggressively, exploit his own personal brand.
MW: Did marketing opportunities play a part in choosing Perez as McLaren’s new driver?
JA: Yes. I’ve sat in some interesting meetings where we’ve discussed the pros and cons of different drivers, as any Formula 1 team does. There is always consideration given to how quick the driver is, and how attractive the driver is in playing a role to attract funds to the team. To be a successful team in Formula 1 you need significant amounts of sponsorship funding.
Ultimately, success drives interest in the team, but increasingly our sponsor partners are wanting to tell stories, just as any marketer does. To tell a story with a monosyllabic, disinterested driver is a pretty tough gig, so selling that to sponsor partners is not something that we wanted to do. In Sergio, we’ve got somebody who is vivacious, young, attractive, popular and quick. It’s quite a nice basket of attributes but it’s not a guarantee that he’s going to succeed on the track, so he’s got a lot of work to do.
MW: The contract with McLaren’s headline Formula 1 sponsor Vodafone ends in 2013. Do you expect it to be renewed?
JA: We are working out what its and our objectives are and whether we can extend that relationship. It’s a seven-year relationship that has played a massive role in embedding Vodafone’s brand in some of the growth markets it has gone into, such as India. Whether that fits with its objectives for the next seven years I can’t say, only it can, but there have been very fruitful discussions. Here’s hoping it endures beyond 2013.
MW: How much do the objectives of sponsors change from year to year?
JA: Our sponsors are in volatile, competitive industries and almost every year there is a different nuance to how each one determines value from its relationship with us because they have different battles to fight, be those price or brand differentiation battles or even awareness battles depending on the different markets in which they are prioritising their efforts.
We agree a menu of relevant assets that each partner can activate, but equally we’re very responsive to changes in the dynamics of any of our partners’ industries or market situations. We would never impose a set of assets that weren’t relevant to the needs of the partner.
MW: What are sponsors buying into with the McLaren brand, and how would you like it to be seen?
JA: We are unashamedly about performance. We’re about winning and obviously in Formula 1 that is easily quantifiable. I call us brand extremists: we’re not a broad church.
We have formally undertaken brand tracking only in the past 12 months, so we are just starting to see quantified proof of what our hypothesis would have been, which is that people see us pretty much as we see ourselves. The issue is making a hi-tech performance brand loveable. For people to want to have a relationship with us, our drivers, our racing team or our cars and other products, they don’t only need to aspire to be part of that journey, they need to like us (see Tooned case study).
MW: Which is the priority for you - marketing to fans or to potential sponsors?
JA: One of the most important stakeholder groups we engage with is other companies - we have 39 commercial partners. But there is a chicken and egg relationship with making sure we’re being the most attractive brand we can be to our fans. By our fans, I’m talking about Formula 1 and, increasingly, our road cars.
Our fans talk about us, they share information about us, they drive viral buzz and ultimately they transact with us - they buy our products or those of our sponsors, and those lucky enough to be able to afford to, buy our cars. The challenge is that we sometimes have to morph into being more corporate, or a good employer, or a sexy road car brand.
Brands have finite elasticity, so what I’ve always tried to steer clear of is cynical brand stretch to try and broaden our church, because ultimately its credibility will snap.
Case Study: Tooned
In 2012, McLaren brand director John Allert set out to soften the image of the F1 car brand. By his own admission, its pursuit of engineering performance sometimes means it comes across as too clinical, while its biggest Formula 1 rivals Ferrari and Red Bull are better known for generating passion and entertainment.
Aside from social media, the main means that McLaren has used to engender more warmth among fans has been Tooned, a cartoon series featuring the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 racing team, set in and around the McLaren Technology Centre where its cars are designed and tested. Through a contra deal with Sky, the episodes ran before and after its coverage of the 2012 Grands Prix.
Allert says McLaren’s sponsors have also had a chance to get involved, and will continue to do so with more episodes in 2013: “A number of our partners have seen the opportunity tell their own stories to a different demographic or in a different way with Tooned. Engine oil Mobil 1, for example, has commissioned six Tooned episodes this year that will tell the story of its technology.”
Engine lubricant is not normally the most compelling of topics, but Allert says that the humour of Tooned allows Mobil 1 to speak to new audiences in a different tone of voice. McLaren will also be looking to extend its own commercial objectives for Tooned in the coming season. Allert says more than half the tweets about Tooned are in Spanish, and with Mexican driver Sergio Perez joining the team this year, a Spanish-language version could be on the cards, among other licensing initiatives.
He says: “At the last count I think we’ve had 14 broadcasters approach us, asking whether they could run Tooned as a series next year; and expressions of interest from major brands in terms of gaming, licensing, publishing, movie creation and distribution.
“We’re now at a stage where we’ve got to work out what we want to achieve with Tooned this year before we commit to any of those contracts, although I’m sure we will end up committing to a number of them.”