The gasoline that keeps a good portion of the sports machine running is sponsorship. I’m using the gasoline analogy today because there has been a high profile sponsorship dispute going on in the world of auto racing and I think it’s instructive to any of us who sell or buy pretty much anything.
You’ve probably heard of Danica Patrick, NASCAR‘s only female driver in its top-level series, The Monster Energy Cup. She drives for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), who sold the rights to sponsor her car in 2016 for several years. Somewhere along the line things went south and Nature’s Bakery terminated what was a three-year deal after the first year, claiming that SHR “did nothing other than collect Nature Bakery’s money”. An additional issue was that Danica personally endorsed a competing product (albeit one with no visibility on the car or around the races). SHR sued to recover the agreed-upon payments. As it turns out, Nature’s Bakery will sponsor four cars during this season, split between SHR’s drivers, as part of a settlement.
I spent a lot of years selling sports sponsorships and I know first-hand how hard it is sometimes not to over promise in your zealous pursuit of the sale. In this case, Nature’s Bakery was told to expect a 4-to-1 return on investment. The reality was there was no significant increase in sales. That could have been due to any number of reasons, including some that had to do with logistics and not with awareness, but it points to a core issue.
When you’re selling anything, setting expectations and agreeing on how performance is going to be measured is key. In this case, many of the measures of awareness did rise significantly, but if the client’s goal was sales then the buyer and seller seem misaligned. Keeping expectations of both parties on the same page and in alignment must be the goal of all parties, and the documents shouldn’t be signed until that goal is reached.
There also seems to be some inexperience in sports sponsorship at work here. A team that has Coke as a sponsor might very well have athletes who endorse Pepsi. An arena with Mastercard as a building sponsor might see an athlete who plays in that building in an American Express commercial. Danica is one of NASCAR’s most visible drivers and her personal endorsements should have been identified to the buyers (even though anyone could find them easily on her personal website). Always remember that a good seller sits on the same side of the desk (figuratively speaking) as their buyer since you’re both trying to accomplish the same thing.
Aligned expectations, appropriate measures of reaching goals, and transparency are how sports sponsorships (and others too!) get done and stay on track. You with me?
I’m a fan of NASCAR, specifically of its top tier, now called the Monster Cup Series. For my non-gearhead friends and readers, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, preferably in person (bring earplugs!).
Some big news came out of the NASCAR world yesterday and it prompted a thought that is applicable to any of us in business. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after this season. Only 42, he’s been NASCAR’s most popular driver ever since his dad died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 and leads an enormous fan base known as Junior Nation. Full disclosure: I’m a member. He’s really the spiritual leader and one of the last remnants of the NASCAR of old. As a USA Today article on his retirement stated:
A kid of means sent to work in an auto dealership by his father until he began racing, Earnhardt Jr. spoke the language of the fan, in a Carolina accent pleasing to the grassroots folks, was sponsored by a beer company and projected enough hell-raiser vibe to endear himself to the masses. A historian of the sport, he cited the exploits of Cale Yarborough or Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip with a sharp recollection of fan and provided a generational and cultural bridge for NASCAR.
In other words, Junior isn’t corporate, is authentic, and because of that, is beloved. That’s really a lesson for any of us. Consumers adore personalities but only if they believe that what they’re seeing isn’t an act. Any of Junior’s interviews will show you that he’s real. His language is sometimes salty, often grammatically incorrect, and is definitely not the creation of some media trainer’s badgering. Consumers can tell when a brand is inauthentic just as any of us can see it in a person.
This is why I rant sometimes about engaging in conversations with and not in advertising to our consumers. It doesn’t mean boasting about how “real” you are but it does mean defining what your brand means and sticking to it. The definition should be expressed in the language of your consumer and be relevant to why they’d engage with you in the first place. It means participating in social interactions with your fans, not in demanding or leading them.
I guess I’ll need to figure out where my driver loyalty heads next. It seems that NASCAR needs to figure that out as well. As a long-time fan, I’ve watched them migrate from their Southern roots and identity to something much more vanilla, at least that’s how I see it. Junior is the last bastion of the old, authentic NASCAR. Wherever they go next, I hope it at least half as real as he is. Now ask yourself if you’re “being real” too.
I missed the end of the Sprint Cup race yesterday. Not a big deal, I thought, you can read the results in the paper or online. I still have some of my old school media habits and reading the paper with breakfast is one of them, so I was little surprised to see the headline you see pictured below. After all, the only NASCAR driver named Hamilton that I know of was Bobby Hamilton, who passed away in 2007. Had F1’s Lewis Hamilton somehow entered the race and how did I not know that? And why was he driving the 11, which has a regular driver?
None of the above. As it turned out the race winner was Denny Hamlin, who competes every week in the 11 car. The headline was completely wrong. This isn’t a website either, so millions of papers aren’t going to be corrected with the press of a button. Putting aside what must be some editor’s massive embarrassment, there is something any of us in business can learn from this.
Newspapers are supposed to be trusted sources of information. While there is no doubt that the public’s trust in media generally as unbiased factual reporting sources has declined, most mainstream outlets still hold themselves to a higher standard. When mistakes happen – and they do daily – most reputable outlets correct them and call attention to the fact that they have done so, recognizing that they erred in the first place. That’s applicable to any business, as is attention to detail. Someone screwed up badly here. Knowing that it’s generally the editors who write (and certainly approve) the headlines, my money is that the fault lies there. Messing up the big things is usually obvious but it’s the lack of attention to the little things that I think irk consumers even more.
This bad headline is a good reminder. Any business loses trust when they mess up. If we’ve done a good job filling up our karmic bank accounts with our customers, we’ll be fine making these withdrawals for mistakes. Do so on a regular basis, however, and that account becomes overdrawn. That’s when our customers move on. Does that headline make sense?