Choosing to begin electric racing series Formula E in Beijing was no accident, despite China having little history in motorsport.
“We started the championship in China to make a statement,” says Ali Russell, chief marketing officer at Formula E Holdings. “We believe the automotive market is moving east. It’s a thriving market and open to innovation.”
He adds: “We’ve created a new motorsport proposition specifically around the development of the electric motor and rechargeable battery. We had over 190 cities apply to host an ePrix. We felt the opportunity for environmental change is global and we’re seeing a lot of traction in the Far East.
“Places like China face significant challenges with pollution, at the same as there is huge investment in [environmentally-friendly] energy. We are pitching Formula E as a brand willing to tackle global issues like combustion engines and pollution, and as catalyst for technological change. We think that resonate with the population of places like China.”
Specifically, the target is the millennial generation, aged 15- to 25-years-old.
Russell says: “Millennials are the prime audience for electric cars and for engaging with innovative ideas. We’re aggressively going after that area of the market.”
A core part of the strategy is to promote the NEXTEV TCR Formula E Team, formerly known as China Racing.
“We’ve made great effort to ensure we are connecting with the local audience,” Russell says. “I can’t sit here in London and create a Chinese media marketing strategy. Sensibly, we need to work with Chinese partners to ensure the vision we have for China is met.”
Chinese agency Gruppo 11 were recommended by Real Madrid and supported Formula E’s local partnerships with WeChat and Weibo. Formula E also partnered with Enova, a company specifically set up to promote Formula E in China. Enova launched a Mandarin version of the sport’s website and launched a video channel on Youku. Formula E hit a target of 1bn social interactions on Chinese sites in season one, an extraordinary number that Russell puts down to “huge populations and significant local investment in promotion.”
“Gruppo 11 are not changing the fundamental story but making it appropriate for local consumption, making sure we’ve got the right message and the right tone for the target audience,” says Russell. “Local partners are essential to achieving real local traction and with a Chinese team and driver we have been hugely successful.”
One of Formula E’s more innovative and controversial ideas is FanBoost, in which the three drivers with the most votes via social media receive five-second power boosts for their cars, temporarily increasing power from 150kw (202.5bhp) to 180kw (243bhp). It allows fans to potentially influence the outcome of the race and to interact with the drivers. Fans could vote on Facebook, Twitter and Sina Weibo. From the second race in 2014-15, voting was opened up to Chinese and Japanese languages.
Indian team Mahindra Racing asks its 200,000 employees to vote for its drivers on ‘FanBoost Friday’ before a race. Drivers are encouraged to interact with fans too. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most active drivers on social media, China Racing’s Nelson Piquet Jr, won the championship.
Some traditionalists among European motorsport fans have scorned the feature. But “it’s hugely successful in the Far East because of the freshness of the sport,” says Russell. “Fans don’t have any of the preconceptions that those in Europe might have.”
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