NASCAR burns up the track with the best entertainment brand extension opps

IT wasn't long after the May 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup All-Star race ended that Tim Rothwell, senior VP of merchandising and marketing for Universal Studios Consumer Products Group, realized he had hit promo pay dirt.
June 1, 2002

IT wasn’t long after the May 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup All-Star race ended that Tim Rothwell, senior VP of merchandising and marketing for Universal Studios Consumer Products Group, realized he had hit promo pay dirt.

The winning driver that year, Jeff Gordon, drove past the checkered flag in a car emblazoned with a logo for Universal’s hit theatrical franchise Jurassic Park–the appearance of which was part of the studio’s first cross-promotional deal with a NASCAR team. In the following days and weeks, the JP car would be featured everywhere–from national TV, to newspapers and magazines. ‘We ended up getting around 50 million impressions’ just off of the media coverage, says Rothwell.

Equally impressive was the fact that licensed merchandise based on the JP car grossed US$20 million at retail before the year was out. ‘We knew we had tapped into something very special,’ says Rothwell, who has since helped coordinate similar NASCAR cross-promos for 10 Universal film and TV properties.

Many other companies–including toycos, retailers and packaged food companies–are recognizing NASCAR’s power as an effective platform for marketing their products and brands to kids and families. And for good reason, too.

Within the sports arena, NASCAR’s ability to provide marketing access to outside partners is unparalleled. ‘We deal with sports properties all around the world–from Formula One, to Monster Trucks, to the NBA–and in my opinion, there’s nobody better when it comes to brand extension opportunities and marketing,’ says Rothwell. ‘NASCAR gets it.’

What the organization gets is the importance of working with outside partners. In contrast to most pro sports leagues, in which only the elite superstars enjoy the support of sponsors, all NASCAR teams depend on large corporations for funding, says Michael Polis, senior VP of worldwide marketing at the Jim Henson Company. Ergo, they’re willing to bend over backwards to find ways to get partner brands exposure with fans.

Henson, for instance, recently entered into a NASCAR cross-promo that will see eight team cars decked out with paint schemes based on Muppets characters during the July 14 NASCAR race at Chicago Speedland Raceway. Certain drivers will also don matching character-branded helmets and fire suits.

Brokered by Henson, NASCAR diecast licensee Action Performance and the participating racing teams, the deal will also see licensees create a few apparel and collectible SKUs based on the cars, for which Henson will receive a royalty.

Though each deal is different, the components of the Henson cross-promo are typical, putting NASCAR in sharp contrast to other sports leagues in terms of their level of involvement in tie-ins. Can you imagine the Dallas Cowboys agreeing to rent out space on team jerseys to promote the latest Hollywood blockbuster?

Aside from NASCAR’s willingness to meet the needs of its partners, the league’s ability to draw in families is also winning over kids marketers. According to a report published by NASCAR in 2001, 40% of NASCAR fans have children under the age of 17, and of those who identify themselves as fans, two-thirds are between five and 14. But perhaps the most surprising–and enticing–fact to come out of the report is that 40% of NASCAR fans are women. ‘There’s a great opportunity for companies to build brand affinity with moms and then to have that affinity transcend down to the children,’ says Dee Scott, managing director of licensing at NASCAR.

In terms of per-event attendance, NASCAR ranks first in the sporting world, attracting 13 million attendees for the 2,200 races it runs through the Busch Grand National, Craftsman Truck, Winston Cup and Dodge Weekly Racing Series that comprise the organization’s calendar. Currently, NASCAR’s four broadcast partners–Fox, FX, NBC and TNT–televise 80% of the Busch and Winston Cup points races, which adds another layer of marketing exposure for partners.

However, it’s the chance to work with the team sponsors that’s fueling the attraction for kids marketers. Oftentimes negotiating a deal to get your company’s brand or property on a car is just the first step, says Universal’s Tim Rothwell. ‘The ultimate goal of NASCAR promotions is to create integrated marketing campaigns with the dominant sponsors for the teams, and then, where it makes sense, to blow it out into a much bigger promotion.’

In October 1997, Terry Labonte’s team sponsor Kellogg’s created a special run of Spooky Fruit Loops that featured a picture of Labonte’s Universal Monsters-themed car. The image ran on the front of cereal boxes, which included a special mail-in offer for a diecast model of the car.

This March, to coincide with the theatrical re-release of E.T., Universal ran a cross-promo with GM Goodwrench Service, the team sponsor of NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick’s car. The initiative involved Goodwrench dealerships distributing coupon packs, screening tickets and free posters featuring Harvick with the alien character emblazoned on his vehicle.

Likewise, Dale Jarret’s car sponsor UPS is using Miss Piggy and Kermit in a TV commercial that will begin airing this month. In the spot, Kermie and Piggy try to convince Jarret to drive the big brown UPS truck around the NASCAR track rather than his own car.

The upside for NASCAR, which helps hook teams and corporate partners up, lies in keeping the league top of mind with consumers by linking its name to hot entertainment properties. ‘We’re able to connect with these great brands that NASCAR wouldn’t be associated with otherwise,’ says managing director of new business Blake Davidson. ‘And at the same time, entertainment companies are able to leverage our audience base to get their message across.’

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