Fan Focus – Team Sponsorship

12 Feb

One of the things that really interests me about F1 is the connection between teams and fans. Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing a series of ‘Fan Focus’ articles which will look at the different ways in which teams connect with or appeal to F1 fans.

This first article will look specifically at team sponsorship. After a winter break which has been dominated by talk of ‘pay drivers’ and the sponsors they bring to a team, I have been giving thought to what sponsorship means to us fans who are, theoretically, the end-targets of the high speed billboards that we love watching so much. But what does sponsorship really mean to fans these days? Is it always aimed at us, and do we even care who sponsors teams and drivers?

I recently ran a brief fan survey on twitter about sponsorship, the outcomes of which will be outlined here (many thanks to those who completed the survey for me).

Team and driver sponsorship

One of the questions I asked fans was whether they considered themselves a supporter of a team or a driver or both. Only 10% considered themselves a team supporter as opposed to a driver or a driver and team supporter. As drivers tend to move between teams several times during their career, our exposure to sponsors associated with our favourite drivers will inevitably change over time.

57% of those who responded didn’t feel that they were influenced by sponsorship of teams and drivers. This response felt about right to me, as many aren’t influenced by branding. Conversely though, the same proportion of people felt influenced by advertisements featuring an F1 driver. Seeing a particular product being advertised by a driver will get a better response than just a brand name on the side of a car. Mind you, given the quality of some adverts featuring F1 drivers recently (here’s looking at you Jenson Button) you have to wonder…

I also decided to ask fans whether sponsorship of teams (and their drivers) that they *didn’t* like had any negative effect on them. For every driver that we like, there’s usually at least one that we dislike equally strongly. I have to confess that I do get put off by sponsorship of a team I’m “less keen” on. Over a quarter of you agreed with me on that – glad I’m not alone!

Accessibility of sponsors

With some ‘pay drivers’ bringing big company sponsorship, or even national funding (Pastor Maldonado will you please stand up), I was starting to feel like some of the names appearing on the cars were completely unreachable to me. 37% of people who responded to the survey felt that companies sponsoring teams were irrelevant or unaffordable to them. Even in a time of economic difficulty that is quite a high number.

It was interesting to see some of the new brand names on the Lotus F1 team after they formed a partnership with mega-corporation Unilever. They have a huge number of household brand names which are accessible to fans, and have opted to put on two brands which relate to performance and endurance – Clear Anti-Dandruff shampoo and Rexona (the global name for Sure Deodorant). If Unilever are getting in on the act then others may possibly follow.

Team approaches to sponsorship

Different teams inevitably have different approaches to sponsorship. Those who are privately funded or who are at least very successful attract a lot of sponsors and can afford to create a branding ethos or philosophy with their “partners”. If you haven’t read it before, Red Bull’s page about their partners shows how a big, financially strong team can approach its sponsorship: Most of Red Bull’s sponsors are “reachable” to fans in one country or another (inevitably not everything is available everywhere e.g. it is very hard to get Rauch Juices in the UK).

Other financially strong teams like McLaren, Mercedes GP and Caterham F1 also have pages outlining their partners and describe how they work together.

By contrast, a team like Williams F1 who are clearly a little strapped for cash (two heavily sponsored drivers) have a page aimed at their investors (including a share price) and just a flicking ticker of sponsors across the bottom of the page. The brands associated with them are more about what the drivers can bring rather than creating an ethos or a philosophy. If they’re lucky it’ll be a brand name which connects with fans, but teams who need money will take cash from whoever is prepared to stump up the cash that they need. Keeping your place on the grid has to be a priority before developing an ethos to appeal to fans.

Other thoughts

The nature of F1 sponsorship was changed radically by the tobacco advertising ban. Before that, F1 sponsorship was heavily dominated by tobacco companies. Almost every team had a major tobacco sponsor. Tobacco advertising, whatever your views on smoking, was aimed at individual fans and since the ban was brought in teams have had to seek out sponsors in different industries. Some have had to ‘go big’ and look for larger companies e.g. telecoms to support them, while others can support themselves and aim for brands which are more in touch with fans. Only 17% responded that they felt sponsorship was less targeted at fans since the tobacco ban was brought in, so teams have managed to stay in touch with fans fairly successfully.

One off-putting thing for me as a fan is too much sponsorship from one brand. The worst offender right now is probably Santander. They sponsor two of the top four teams (McLaren and Ferrari), as well as a significant proportion of the races. I really dislike that so many trophies are now in the shape of their logo. I wouldn’t bank with them anyway because of the financial issues they’ve had recently, but I’d certainly be otherwise put off by seeing their logo everywhere at races. Everyone is different though, and it clearly wins them customers otherwise they wouldn’t sponsor races.

Whatever your view on sponsorship in F1, whether you resent it or feel inspired by it, it is an integral part of the sport we love. Global sports are nothing without their fans though, and there’s a risk that teams will lose sight of that when it comes to their finances. Having said that, what interests us die-hard fans most is the racing; I’m not sure we really care what logos happen to appear on the cars as long as they are there on the track.

Do let me know your thoughts using the comments feature below.


One Response to “Fan Focus – Team Sponsorship”

  1. SG F1 Fan February 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Really good read. I had quite forgotten how the tobacco ban had impacted teams since.

    On the whole though, I don’t think I pick up much on the advertising. In fact, the only consistent advertising impact for me are usually the engine suppliers (McLaren Mercedes are firmly ingrained in my head). The only other sponsor that comes to my mind is Red Bull from the Sauber days. But then again, that’s when I was a kid and seeing such a bright car just got me interested. 🙂

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