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Audience research drives F1 to brings fans closer with city-based festivals

Formula One’s director of marketing and communications Ellie Norman tells Ben Cronin why the sport’s series of city-based Fan Festivals aim to make it more accessible to audiences and promote it beyond the confines of a Grand Prix weekend.

  • Need for festivals suggested by global brand study
  • F1 London Live the largest non-race event in the 67-year history of the sport
  • Cities like Marseille using the events to promote themselves as tourist destinations

When Formula One brought its first Fan Festival to the streets of London last summer, the event appeared to be straight out of the NFL’s marketing playbook.

F1 London Live, like the US league’s Regent Street festival which runs alongside the London series of NFL games, attempted to promote the sport beyond the confines of the British Grand Prix, taking place some 80 miles away at the Silverstone race circuit the following weekend. Mixing music and entertainment acts with access to cars and drivers, this was a case of Formula 1 taking itself directly to the masses as an audience of 100,000 people interacted with the sport in the UK capital’s Trafalgar Square.

F1’s new director of marketing, Ellie Norman, admits that the London events took some inspiration from the NFL but that the concept was primarily born of research her team has conducted into F1 audiences.

Because of the autocratic style in which the former chief executive Bernie Ecclestone ran the sport, Norman effectively became F1’s first director of marketing and communications when she joined in May last year. Her first act as head of the new division was to conduct a brand study across fans in the UK, Europe, North America, Malaysia and China to find out exactly what people thought of the series. The need to ‘capture cities’, and bring the sport closer to audiences, was reinforced by face-to-face interviews with fans of differing degrees of avidity for the sport.

“Current perceptions were very much centred around the sport being exclusive, inaccessible and very much focused on business-to-business,” she says. “The Fan Festivals that we’ve programmed are about reversing some of those preconceptions and associations.”

Ellie Norman, director of marketing and communications, Formula One

With the exception of a handful of city-centred races like the Monaco, Melbourne and Singapore Grand Prix, most F1 races take place on tracks outside major population centres. The advantage of the unticketed, city-based festivals is that they are easier for families to attend and allow fans much greater proximity to the cars and the stars of the series. Norman says they are designed to broaden the F1 fanbase, simultaneously serving to engage new fans and provide loyal fans with greater access to the sport.

“There is nothing more incredible than the sound of Formula One car, the smell of the rubber. You feel it through your body, it gives you goose bumps. And if we put that into city centres and touch as many people as possible without any ticket charges, we can start to really re-engage fans and bring in new audiences.”

Drivers

The London event was bolstered by the fact that 19 of the 20 drivers on the F1 grid attended (Lewis Hamilton was the only absentee), as teams sought to coordinate their marketing activities with Formula One Management. Norman says this disproves the notion that the sport often struggles to activate its most valuable assets, the drivers and the teams.

“Since I’ve been on board, at every other Grand Prix we will all sit down together with marketing and communications staff or employees within each of the teams,” she says. “We plan through what we’re going to put our shoulder behind and how can we all can work together to essentially grow the sport, because if we all grow the sport it benefits us all.”

Attractions at the events include pit-stop challenges, slot car racing and reaction time tests. Norman says the inclusion of music acts Bastille, Little Mix and the Kaiser Chiefs at F1 London Live was designed to make the event appeal to a broader audience. But she says the other advantage of this type of scheduling is that it gives F1’s broadcast partners differentiated ‘lifestyle’ content that they can programme around their coverage of the race.

The presence of F1 personnel and representatives from motorsport engineering initiatives Formula Student and F1 in Schools to pass on advice and information to youngsters at the festivals is designed to engage a younger audience and draw on the sport’s standing as a pathway into the engineering sector.

The ‘Dare to be Different’ programme for increasing female participation in motorsport – set up by the Motor Sports Association and former driver Susie Wolff – also has a presence at the events and is a further example of the way the festivals are attempting to target specific demographics.

Data

The sport is now monitoring the success of its fan engagement activities during Grand Prix weekends and will apply the insights from this research to the Fan Festivals. The series has been working with real-time experience research and planning agency Mesh to collect spectator feedback about fan zones at races and monitor the natural movements of people around the circuit to see which activities they prefer.

“We’ve taken a lot of insight out of that to really understand what are the most engaging activations that we can take out of the fan zones within a race and take that into the Fan Festivals.

This data-informed approach appears to be bearing fruit. The 100,000 people who attended F1 London Live made it the largest non-race event in the 67-year history of the sport, despite the fact it was announced with just two days’ notice in an attempt to limit disruption and assuage the security concerns of the City of London.

100,000 people attended F1 London Live

F1 subsequently added four more festivals. The first one this year took place in Shanghai in April; a second took place in Marseille ahead of the return of the French Grand Prix. A further one will take place in Milan, at the same time as the Monza Grand Prix in September while a final festival in Miami in October will coincide with the Grand Prix in Austin, Texas and go a small way towards offsetting the postponement of a Grand Prix in the city until at least 2020. The festivals will take place in different markets from year to year to expose as many people as possible to the sport although the location of the first four gives some indication as to where F1’s priorities lie.

“A big part of having a research function is audience segmentation and clearly we’ve identified where our historic heritage markets are,” says Norman. “For us those markets are the UK and Italy, which have had races on the calendar since the inception of the sport in the 1950s. They’re really key markets to continue and maintain and serve a very passionate fanbase, and then we have new markets in China and North America where there is opportunity to grow that fanbase.”

Necessary overhead

Although Norman won’t reveal the exact terms of the hosting agreements for the Fan Festivals, she suggests that the events pay for themselves across the course of a season rather than generating an immediate return on investment.

“What we’re seeing is, across the year, they are washing their faces,” she says. “We’re starting to see increases in race attendances, promoters selling out on tickets, TV viewing figures going up, I think actually all of the activity that we are now putting into market and activating through sponsors, marketing campaigns, Fan Festivals, these are all driving towards shifting the dial.”

She adds that it is too early to determine the exact numbers about the benefits of the festivals but success will be measured by ongoing research into how much fans enjoy themselves at the events and the overall growth of the F1 fanbase and levels of engagement therein.

F1 anticipates that the festivals will also help to boost the economic benefits that hosting a Grand Prix can bring to a host city or region. In the case of the Fan Festival in Marseille, F1 instigated discussions about bringing the event to the city but ensured that its own promotional objectives were aligned with those of the host. As it transpired, representatives from the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region embraced the idea because it allowed them to promote the city of Marseille rather than the small village of Le Castellet where the Paul Ricard Grand Prix circuit is situated.

Norman suggests the festivals are treated as a bonus activation opportunity for its existing roster of sponsors and that they aren’t expected to pay for the additional exposure. She adds that the degree to which sponsors and teams activate depends on the market.

“France is a massively important market for Renault, so they put everything into the Marseilles Fan Festival and they brought down and did live car runs through 120 years of the history of Renault with racing cars through the ages.

“Teams are very keen to be involved, and also our existing partners within the sport because it’s an opportunity for them to be bringing activations and experiences to an audience that potentially they haven’t been able to engage with at the race circuit themselves.”

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