Friday, February 24, 2012

Rethinking Sports Brands: Lessons from NASCAR's Reinvention

What does NASCAR have to do with content?

Quite a bit, actually - something that you may know already if you've followed our blog through the years. If you have, you know that Shore defines content as information and experiences in which  audiences may find value in specific contexts. Well, NASCAR stock car racing certainly provides some thrilling experiences for audiences in some valuable contexts, as well as plenty of information. So yes, NASCAR is all about smoking tires and go-fast action, but mostly it's a content business. And as with many content businesses, it's had challenges during the recent economic slump that have had NASCAR scrambling to understand what they're doing right and what they could do better.

As The New York Times related recently, NASCAR's evaluation of their pluses and minuses revealed some troubling patterns. One of the patterns that emerged was that it was an events service that was viewed very differently by the various constituents who provide support for the events and by the people who come to see them. Most particularly, there had emerged a fairly significant disconnect between how NASCAR and its supporting racing teams and sponsors had been communicating with newer audiences for their sport. It turns out that many of the assumptions of NASCAR's marketing communications were focused around long-time fans of stock car racing.

Some of NASCAR's fuzzy assumptions revolved around the core of things that had changed quite a bit in the sport itself. In earlier generations, folks that frequented NASCAR events were often "gearheads," people who may have tinkered under the hood of their own cars to soup up their performance or just to keep them working. Today, even if you are a gearhead, modern cars aren't designed with the tinkerer in mind - unless you happen to be into engine computer chip programming. Even if you are into high-tech auto performance, the upper limits of performance enhancement for oval track racing were reached decades ago. So for both the old-timer and the newcomer, the tech of NASCAR was not as accessible or motivating as it used to be. It's mostly about "shake and bake" - the action on the track that has to be tight and exciting as much as possible.

With that in mind, NASCAR has had to take a look at how it was engaging its audiences to build excitement around its brand. One key aspect that needed to be addressed was social media communications for the sports' drivers and key figures. Tweets and posts were encouraged from these people, so that fans could identify more with the individual personalities that drive the sport. The other key factor they recognized, though was that their media and advertising partners had goals that weren't necessarily reinforcing their own goals. Its deal with Turner Sports will lapse in 2013, enabling NASCAR to user their online Web site to collect video that highlights NASCAR from all sources. In the spirit of "There's no such thing as bad PR," NASCAR sees that if you want your brand to thrive, an agnostic approach to content aggregation that reinforces your core brand value is a must for reaching younger audiences in online markets.

And what else might happen once they get back control of their Web presence in 2013? Well, certainly Major League Baseball's approach to online marketing of its sport indicates that there are some transitions required for emphasizing online channels that are exciting but not always easy to navigate. MLB's "AtBat" package of cross-platform streaming video of its games provides an alternative for channeling the live experience of baseball to its fans on whatever device might be in front of their eyes at a given moment. But "AtBat" has a big hole in its offering - contracts with local cable companies and broadcast TV stations restrict them from offering at-home games on the service. So although MLB leads the way in many ways for defining their product's own brand via its own online media channels, the transition to an all-online approach to sports media is still a work in progress.

NASCAR has similar problems short-term with streaming video that hold back the value of its TRACKPASS online events content, which provides a rich mix of streaming audio and data during live racing and some video coverage of qualifying heats, but which sidesteps the live events themselves in favor of its main media channel partners. After 2013, though, one wonders how much longer that will last. The rapidly evolving world of cross-platform streaming Web content is pushing content brands such as NASCAR inevitably into much more independent modes of distribution of its content - and, therefore, better integration of its knowledge of fans and their ability to deliver valuable audiences for marketers via that knowledge.

Finally, though, comes the key question: maybe gearheads are a lost constituency that need to be regained in new ways. New forms of automotive technology such as battery-powered autos are pitting auto makers against one another in ways that are reminiscent of how Apple, Google, Microsoft and others go after one another in the online platform wars. There are plenty of people out there that dig technology on wheels, be it in your hand with a screen or in your hand with a steering wheel. The key link missing in NASCAR's strategy seems to be with the auto brands, which could be contributing a lot more oomph in NASCAR as a platform for distinguishing how their products really differ from one another.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to NASCAR go-fast culture is to go back to cars that are a lot more like the real cars that we drive. Given that autos themselves are becoming their own form of online content platforms, it would bring new meaning to the old NASCAR axiom "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday" if they were to find ways to link people's on-the-road experience of an auto brand to the race version of similar models via content services. Special streaming services for Ford owners from the Ford-based auto teams, perhaps? If you leave the cars out of car racing, all you really have is a wrestling match on wheels. Chip in more foreign brands and you'd have people rooting for their favorite car brands again, perhaps.

So although NASCAR's challenges are somewhat unique to their sport, they point towards a wide array of common challenges that sports brands face. It's about channels, social media conversations and a more careful look at the "geek" of each sport that turns on as many people as possible from as many angles as possible. The reinvention of NASCAR is far from over, even as many sports relearn how to appeal to their audiences at a time when entertainment spending is tied more than ever to online spending and experiences. We're always glad to help folks in those transitions, of course.