Straight talk

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Bernie lands backing from a brewer… and gets it to promote F1

In Montréal Bernie Ecclestone presided over the launch of Heineken’s Formula 1 sponsorship. The Dutch beer giant, which has used its marketing expertise to convince the world it has a premium product, is about to plough an annual £70 million directly into the sport over the next five years – and probably beyond – plus double that amount in ‘activation’ (letting the world know about the programme). As well as shoring up F1’s finances, the activation part of the programme will essentially be doing F1’s marketing, finally bringing it into the 21st century. Bernie has succeeded in getting someone else to do
the sport’s marketing and getting them to pay for the privilege. It’s a quite brilliant left-field solution, a little indication that the old boy still has a few tricks up his sleeve. 

That latter message is one that he is keen to make clear. Amid occasional speculation that he is about to stand down (or be stood down), he used the opportunity of the launch immediately to set things straight. In a cold marquee at the Canadian track, he walked on stage. “Some people are saying I’m leaving F1,” he said. “Well, the funeral people can sort that out.” 

Heineken’s marketing director Gianluca di Tondo explained the thinking behind the sponsorship deal. “We have the same goal [as Formula 1] – we both want to recruit. We want to recruit new consumers to turn them into Heineken drinkers, they want to recruit new spectators to make them F1 fans. We think we can work together to achieve this. We can reach out to 200 million people on top of those we already reach with the platform we have.

“For us the point is to go beyond broadcast. It is really to leverage the power of digital and social media. There are traditional assets: traditional mass media, TV, print.
Then there’s below the line: bars, hotels, cafés, restaurants, supermarkets. You will see an activation for Heineken and F1. We will leverage F1 massively on our social media and our digital programmes. This is the way you move from the million to the billion. If you take what we did for UEFA Champions League, our Twitter programme reaches 2.5 billion people. That is the way you scale up what you do.

“The way we look at F1 is from two sides. On one side it is still a platform that is loved by millions of people: and that is 200 million on top of what we can reach at the moment and that really intrigues us. And as a marketeer, I personally believe it is largely unexploited. So I believe we can do with F1 things that no one has done before. On social media and digital, F1 can leverage on us and we can leverage on F1. Like all the big brands, we are moving from traditional media/broadcast to digital because that is where the people are moving as well.”

As a little post-script to Bernie’s avowed intentions of staying put until The End, in Azerbaijan he pulled me up on something I’d written in Motor Sport a couple of issues ago – to do with a vote on the engine regulations in which I’d questioned whether he’d just lost out in a stand to retain power. “The client engine is off the table for now,” he confirmed. “But if the number of races falls below 19, then everything is back on the table. I think we’ll be down to 18 by next year…” the straight face then breaking into a grin. I think it was a joke. What did I think of Azerbaijan, he asked. “A beautiful place, a great track,” I replied. Was I concerned about the human rights issue? I’d read the Sport For Rights publication [outlining how journalists were being imprisoned without trial by the ruling powers for not being on-message]. “Well, you’d be imprisoned if you were here. But I don’t have that power.” This time I wasn’t quite so sure it was a joke… 

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