F1's brand challenge

LONDON - New teams and line-ups will make F1 a force to be reckoned with this season, writes Joe Thomas.

With Max Mosley out and two new teams in, when the season starts this weekend Formula One will begin a new era - one in which the sport could become even more compelling for brands.

Mosley, the controversial former president of the sport's governing body, the FIA, has been succeeded by ex-Ferrari marketer Jean Todt, who has brought Lotus and Virgin to the grid.

How the teams fare will be a good indicator of the lure of the world's premier motor sport. More importantly for the British public and sponsors, this season UK-based team Vodafone McLaren Mercedes will field the two most recent world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

Powerful asset

For F1, the opportunity to cash in has never been so great; for sponsors, its offering may dispel the temptation to plough budget into campaigns around this summer's FIFA World Cup finals.

Robin Fenwick, managing director at Right Formula, sponsorship agency for the Hilton hotel chain, which is a McLaren sponsor, sees the Hamilton-Button team-up as an opportunity for sponsors to gain far more cut-through. 'The drivers are very different characters and can be marketed in very different ways. Together they are a powerful marketing asset,' he says.

Hilton is preparing to invest heavily in UK activity promoting its affiliation.

Santander, a sponsor of both Ferrari and McLaren, plans to continue using its partnership with the latter as the cornerstone of its marketing activity. Later this year the bank will run a UK TV campaign using both Hamilton and Button to capitalise on the duo's appeal.

Keith Moor, UK brand and communications director at Santander, is convinced of the substantial value of its sponsorship, but wary of the finance brand becoming one-dimensional in its marketing approach.

'The number of F1 followers in the UK is much smaller than our customer base, so our communications can't all be about motor sport because we'll risk alienating some people,' he says.

Moor also questions whether the fact that both McLaren drivers are British is that important. 'People are more agnostic about their country than you would think,' he claims. 'Some UK fans will adopt a European team such as Ferrari instead of one that is primarily British.'

Nonetheless, F1 faces a struggle to grab attention this year, given that the World Cup will clash with many of the summer races. F1 viewing figures fell during the 2006 tournament. Yet Moor believes that this time around, F1 can benefit from the World Cup if England reaches the final: the match falls on 11 July, the day of the British Grand Prix.

'Patriotism will be enlivened during the World Cup and I think F1 can play on that,' he says. 'It could be the greatest day of sport in years.'

A break with ads

Since the last World Cup, F1 coverage has shifted from ITV to the BBC. This could be seen as a blow for brands wanting to promote their association. Not so, according to Tove Okunniwa, managing partner at partnership agency MEC Access, who does not believe that the change has deterred sponsors.

'Sponsorship can be leveraged as long as ratings continue to increase. Although there are no ad breaks during F1, brands have now more opportunity through enhanced content,' she says. 'There is also the argument that F1 fanatics found ad breaks infuriating.'

For many brands, the opportunity to tap in to a growing sport with a stellar season in prospect has great allure; but F1 is not for all brands. For some, the glamour of the sport clashes with their brand values. Gwyn Burr, customer director at Sainsbury's, says: 'We like to focus on grass-roots sports, which are open to more people getting involved, such as football and rugby.'

Make a note in your diary. Even if England fails to win the World Cup, 11 July could be a great day for British sport and all associated with F1.

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