F1 rumours leave brand investments in balance

Speculation and scandals affecting sport sponsors highlight the risk of using brand ambassadors.

The unpredictability that comes with using celebrity ambassadors has never been plainer to see. Take the media storm that engulfed Nike over its support and subsequent dropping of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong – a man who, hitherto, must have seemed like a marketing miracle sent from above.

Nowhere is the chase for brand ambassador gold dust more fraught right now than in Formula One, where, with the season approaching its finale, a who's-going-where soap opera involving its star drivers continues to rumble on.

Last month, former world champion Lewis Hamilton shocked the sport – and sponsors Vodafone and Santander – by opting to leave his long-term team McLaren for Mercedes. Now, reigning champion Sebastian Vettel is the subject of intense speculation that he will be leaving Red Bull Racing in 2014 for Ferrari.

Ambitious entrant

One brand that will be keeping a close eye on developments with German driver Vettel is Nissan-owned luxury carmaker Infiniti. With ambitious plans to triple its global sales to 500,000 units by 2016, the company decided last year that it needed to turbo-charge its growth, and signed a deal to become lead sponsor of the Red Bull team.

According to Infiniti's global F1 director, Andreas Sigl – a former marketer at Intel, Audi and Nissan – the brand felt compelled to do 'something rather fast' to close the gap on German rivals Mercedes, BMW and Audi. 'It's clear we have to build brand awareness to catch up with the players ahead of us, who have had a huge head start. That is the challenge, but the opportunity is that they also have a lot of baggage,' he says.

Infiniti's growth has been patchy: Nissan launched the brand in the US – with some success – in 1989, but it did not arrive in Europe until 2008. Progress in the UK has been doubly painstaking; sales have been in the hundreds rather than thousands. To encourage its transformation into a strong global brand, the decision was taken to recruit Red Bull's leading driver, Vettel, as Infiniti's first worldwide ambassador.

International reachAndreas Sigl, Infiniti

Although Sigl will not comment on 'rumour and speculation' about Vettel moving away from Red Bull, he claims it was the right decision to feature the driver so prominently in its advertising. 'We needed a face for the brand,' he says. 'As a young brand talking to younger buyers, we wanted someone with an international point of view. It is also a bit tongue-in-cheek that he happens to come from the country where our three main competitors come from.'

Sigl claims that Infiniti plans to continue to invest in F1 for the 'long term' at the expense of the kind of 'softer' cultural sponsorships often associated with luxury brands. 'What you see with a lot of other manufacturers are "chairman's choices", where it is difficult for them to get out,' he says. 'A lot of it is cliched – got to be in opera, in golf, in tennis. That's like saying you need leather seats because it's a premium car.'

The marketer believes Infiniti is 'not even halfway to fulfilling the potential' of its association with F1. But such is the volatile nature of the sport, its ability to maximise it may be out of Infiniti's hands.

 

EXPERT VIEWRupert Pratt, Generate

Rupert Pratt, managing director, Generate

F1 sponsors often follow a particular driver due to their nationality, but it is tricky. With McLaren and Lewis Hamilton (and Jenson Button), Vodafone and Santander will have built entire marketing strategies around these personalities. Suddenly, a large chunk of that will disappear when Hamilton leaves. That is part and parcel of sponsorship, though, and why you should spread the risk across a portfolio. The same goes for performance: if a team isn't doing well, you will want to dial up another part of your portfolio.

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