Formula One has changed rapidly in just six months. Getting underway with a rebrand, it then opened its first ever marketing department and subsequently launched an over-the-top streaming service, going to show just how seriously new owner Liberty Global is taking its brand-building efforts.
Leading the charge has been managing director Ellie Norman, previously advertising and sponsorship boss at Virgin Media, whose first action on taking the role was to commission F1's first ever study into its fans – all part of an immediate objective to better service them and grow the sport.
Norman said this was one of the reasons F1 launched its direct streaming app last week with little warning. “We are going direct to the fan so we are then able to give them the best experience possible," she told The Drum. There is nowhere else out there with 24 livestreams coming into the app and that is pretty insane – I don’t think that has been done before.”
The app is available in around two dozen countries at the moment, largely distributed across Europe and the Americas. Norman said the intriguing distribution of the service (it is available in Germany, France and the US but not the UK) is down to F1 only activating in markets where it hasn't already surrendered exclusivity of the Digital Rights to broadcasters. Additional conversations are underway, however, about bundling the service with the broadcasters who already own the digital rights too.
“The best thing we can do is give fans that level of engagement that has been lacking for years.“ Norman added.
Of course, yet another OTT streaming service entering the market means that concerns around the pay TV bundle fragmenting – and fans potential having to fork out more for their diet of sport as a result – could be coming to fruition. Norman, leaning on her learnings from Virgin Media, stressed that the power of fandom is not to be underestimated.
“It is my perception and previous experience suggests that passion tends to overrule the rational side of things; it is not uncommon if you have a pay TV bundle that you will have one or two of the top subscriptions. I think that with consumer behaviour and the desire to buy things you love, consumers are making that choice. If you are interested you will pay.”
How many people have to jump on the F1 TV bandwagon for it to be a success? Norman revealed that the sport has some 503 million fans across the globe, and that its service therefore does not need to attract a huge proportion to make a significant impact. “If there were 1% of people who want to consume it this way, that would be incredible opportunity,” she said, adding that the service was a way of monetising unused digital rights across the globe from which there was no prior income.
There has been a lot of change at the company since its takeover by Liberty Media which was completed last year. Norman said: “They know what they are doing, they are wise and smart people. They saw F1 as an underutilised opportunity, there was a whole heap it could serve to improve.”
This kicked off with the rebrand, which traded F1's classic marque for a new identity intended to be more sleek and mobile-friendly. Some loved it, some hated it, a typical paradigm in the age of social media. But the logo rework was all about updating the brand to “live in a digital environment” which, in hindsight, was needed in preparation for the launch of the OTT service.
Norman looked at the efforts of Netflix, Amazon, NFL and the NBA for inspiration for the streaming service. “Everyone is offering fans more direct access, we are incredibly fortunate with the access that we have through our sport," she said.
“It is a very strategic sport and for that hardcore fan, they really understand the excitement but the strategic elements, having the ability to personalise how you watch it and being able to select favourite drivers and view that side by side, these are all elements where we can better serve our fans.”
The service was described by Frank Arthofer, director of digital and new business at Formula One, as for the "hardest-core of fans". As such, F1 will have a direct link to these consumers for the first time, data that could inform and direct future marketing opportunities. But likely not anytime soon, admitted Norman, who pointed to astonishing fact that F1's first marketing department was only formed six months ago.
There is a data warehouse in the works, being built from scratch with the help of partner agencies. This centre will be purpose-built to one day help build up long-term engagement.
From the HQ in Kent, the company is looking at new ways of broadcasting the sport and bulking up the app beyond the data overlays and multi-screen experience. This includes in-exhaust microphones, pinhead-sized 360 cameras upon the cars, and access to driver radios, all to sate the hunger of fans keen to dig under the hood of the sport at an unprecedented level.
F1 is a brand pivoting from the old ways. It was one of the first sports to do away with grid girls, which reportedly did not reflect its brand values – anymore at least. In their place are grid kids, like the miniscule mascots that have been led out onto football pitches for generations. Additionally, F1 is now allowing its teams to more effectively monetise by granting them more on-car space for sponsors.
But to grow the sport, F1 must get in front of as many consumers as possible, both in the digital – and physical – spaces.
Norman concluded that she is keen to tap experiential opportunities to get the brand out there more than ever before.
Below is the display the brand erected at Mobile World Congress (MWC). It will be able to roll out this experience and more at other sites and events across the globe.
In 2018, Norman will tap eSports for the second year running in addition to getting out into urban city centres with live runs, parks with concessions, musical performances and Q&As with drivers. There is also talk of getting F1 into fashion.
She said: “It is a visceral sport, how do we take elements of that away from the circuit? This is about taking F1 out to audiences that wouldn’t necessarily buy a ticket.”