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In era of racing sponsor retreats, Chevrolet doubles down on activation

  • US automaker seeks to maintain tight link between racing and consumer car models
  • Data-driven focus on fan journeys from tracks to dealer showrooms
  • Activation efforts include popup displays that are like ‘an auto show in a state fair setting’

The North American auto industry’s increasing gravitation toward crossover sport utility vehicles, trucks, and electric vehicles has lessened the natural link between the “stock car” element of auto racing, making the sport now a more fertile sponsorship area for brands in other product sectors.

Despite this shift, General Motors’ Chevrolet brand is doubling down on its support of auto racing, believing its sponsorship activities in the space pay sizable benefits not only in consumer marketing and sales of its cars, but also product development and employee recruitment and development.

As the maker of high-performance consumer car models such as the Corvette and Camaro, Chevrolet continues to have an active presence in engines and design for racing. Its motorsports sponsorship investments include the NTT IndyCar series, Monster Energy Cup Series, Xfinity Series, and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Terry Dolan, director of motorsports marketing and activation at Chevrolet, says the brand’s racing presence is deliberately multi-pronged.

“One of the benefits of racing as it translates to production vehicles includes the validation of production tool processes back to racing,” says Dolan. “That initiative sees the rapid validation of power plants and production methods, funneling key information back to the racetracks.”

Chevrolet also sees racing as a great way to recruit and develop engineers.

“When you’re part of the race team, you work on race time,” says Dolan. “That means rapid problem-solving to identify performance shortfalls and related solutions.”

And of course, the brand still sees boosts in its overall brand image through its motorsports activities.

“Through racing and winning, fans perceive our vehicles to be more dependable, more reliable,” says Dolan, adding that this “demonstrates our ability to build performance characteristics”.

Building consumer loyalty

A key part of Chevrolet’s motorsports marketing activation has been its consumer loyalty program. The obvious intent behind the loyalty effort is to not only provide perks to reward loyalty customers and influence repeat purchasing, but also have those fans become active brand advocates in their own right that extend the Chevrolet message through word of mouth and social media. 

That play then takes on an additional element when factoring in the deep emotional connections many consumers have with their cars.

“Race fans are automotive enthusiasts who like to watch cars and trucks do high-speed dynamics,” Dolan says. “This demographic for us is more knowledgeable about product features and benefits. They’re able to transmit that to prospective consumers in their associated social groups, which drives them into our new vehicle showrooms.”

Chevrolet’s competition, including Ford and Toyota among others, has also sought to use motorsports as a marketing platform for similar reasons also motivated by sales and branding. But on top of Chevrolet’s status as a successful car brand in North American motor sports, the brand has sought to differentiate itself in part through a variety of special-event activations.

Those efforts have included shutting down Jefferson Avenue in front of its downtown Detroit, Michigan, headquarters to reveal its 2018 Nascar Cup Series Car, or unveiling via helicopter airlift a new Silverado in late 2017 onto the track at Texas Motor Speedway in an event featuring racing icon Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others.

The brand’s core strategies were again on display in May during the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. General Motors was able to tout the Chevrolet-powered Team Penske Menards winning car driven by Simon Pagenaud, as well as further activation during the month as the IndyCar series raced twice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the month, allowing Chevrolet to have an active presence at the fabled racetrack beyond the Indy 500 itself.

This race-side display, seen here at the Indy 500, is described as an “auto show in a state fair setting” is designed to drive consumers to dealer showrooms (Chevrolet).

Visual displays

Chevrolet’s activation at other IndyCar events also includes large popup displays in stadium infields featuring several racing Corvettes, truck models, and IndyCar racing engines, a visual that Dolan likened to “an auto show in a state fair setting”.

The brand uses those displays to gather fan prospect data for potential future sales. Fans are encouraged to sit in the vehicles, and receive plenty of promotion around advanced technology and safety features in the consumer models of those cars such as blind spot indicators, lane centering assistance tools, or air-conditioning power outlets in the backs of pickup truck beds.

Company data found that the Chevrolet display at the Indianapolis 500 generated more than 10,000 visitors across the entire Memorial Day race weekend. And the information gathered from that crowd represents the beginning of a consumer tracking sequence that allows Chevrolet to follow the path of a consumer from race day to a showroom and then ideally a sale.

Chevrolet also gets a sizable bump in brand exposure from the Official Pace Car of the Indianapolis 500 this year being a burgundy 2019 Corvette driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., former Nascar star and now an analyst on NBC’s broadcast racing coverage. While official attendance numbers are not released, IMS president Doug Boles said that attendance for the Indianapolis 500 attendance this year surpassed 300,000, up slightly from last year.

NBC’s US-based coverage, meanwhile, across TV, online and mobile platforms in its first year airing the event generated a total audience delivery of nearly 5.5 million viewers, and 11-per-cent bump from last year when the race was on ABC. The race’s 3.43 household rating on US TV was the best for an Indy 500 in three years.

The Corvette driven by Earnhardt Jr. was actually one of four vehicles Chevrolet supplied for the Indy 500 Pace Car program. Three were used for the race itself and events tied to the Indy 500, and have become a highly sought-after item for car collectors. A fourth is given to the winner of the race. As one might expect for such a high-profile event, the specific choices in the models and colors each year for the pace cars are the result of lengthy internal deliberations across Chevrolet’s internal marketing team. 

Going back to stock car racing’s roots, a key element for the brand is to maintain as much a link as possible between what is used in the racing settings, and a production vehicle that a consumer could buy. And arguably the North American performance vehicle holds a deeply beloved place in American car culture.

The quartet of Corvettes used as part of that Pace Car program were 2019 Grand Sport Corvettes featuring a 460-horsepower engine, a wider body, wheels and tires, and larger disc brakes, a special roll bar, and racing bucket seats with a five-way harness. But the only true break from those features and a high-performance package a consumer could buy at a retail showroom were strobe lights placed along the tops of the pace car vehicles.

Chevrolet’s truck line, led by by its Silverado brand, also receives a heavy showing at race events such as the Indy 500, as consumer data has consistently shown motorsports fans to be pickup truck purchasers at rates far greater than the general US population.

“In general, whether it’s Nascar, IndyCar, sports car racing, or drag racing, truck ownership indexes at a much higher rate across all the categories,” Dolan says. “Just in general, race fans tend to buy more full-sized pickups than any other vehicle. That’s certainly our bread and butter, and the bread and butter of our competition.”

Chevrolet’s motorsports activation has included shutting down the street in front of its downtown Detroit headquarters to unveil its 2018 Nascar Cup Series Car (Chevrolet).

Changes coming

With this ideological and activation framework in place, Chevrolet intends on July 18 to formally introduce in Orange County, California, the biggest design change to the Corvette since its original 1953 introduction.

The long-nose front engine design of the high-performance sports car, a key part of the Corvette iconography since the very beginning, will give way to the C8, a mid-engine design that will look more like a blend of a Corvette and a Ferrari.

To allow for the mid-engine design, the new C8 Corvette will see massive air-intake ducts near the rear tires and a “nose lift” that will allow drivers to raise the front of car and prevent damage when negotiating speed bumps.

With that momentous design change and continued consumer purchasing away from passenger cars, Chevrolet says its commitment to marketing through motorsports remains steadfast.

“Racing is what we do,” Dolan says. “It is an investment that shows in our production designs and continues to build our relationship with consumers.”

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