Danica Patrick is a brand. So is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. What about Greg Biffle or Marcos Ambrose or Kyle Busch? Do they qualify as “brands?” Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse is a brand, and so is Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet is a brand, as well. The No. 24 DuPont Chevy has been considered a brand, but can the No. 24 AARP “Drive to End Hunger” Chevy be considered one, too? During last Friday’s press conference at Kansas – when it was announced that Clint Bowyer had been named to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 – it seemed as though everything in-and-around the deal was deemed to be “a brand.” Bowyer was called a brand, and so was MWR. 5-Hour Energy, the company backing from 20 to as many as 24 races for Bowyer and his No. 15 Toyota, was referred to as a brand, as was Toyota itself. By the time Clint Bowyer’s press conference ended, reporters had heard the word “brand” more than they did the word “NASCAR.” Come to think if it… NASCAR is a brand, too. So what gives? What’s the big deal regarding this notion of what (or who?) is a brand?
“Branding” – and all of its various forms (as in to “brand” and/or to become “branded”) – seems to be finding its way into the lexicon of NASCAR. Maybe it stems from the fact that today, more so than ever before, competing in the sport requires funding so extensive and so diverse that the lines between sponsor and driver and car and team have become blurred to the point of non-existence. The formal definition of “a brand” is simple to cite: according to the American Marketing Association, a brand is any “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service from those of other sellers.” How’s that for broad? Even though a brand could technically be construed as anything relating to a product’s identity, the overall notion rests in the realm of turning an “anything” into a memorable, recognizable, and profitable “something.”
Part of branding involves the fact that many businesses (and file “NASCAR teams” under this category) are composed of intangibles – elements within the company that are difficult (if not impossible) to assess according to their presumed value. How do you appraise the “worth” of driving talent, or courage, or a work ethic, or the consistency and efficiency of a pit crew or shop personnel? All of these elements are vital to a team’s success, but they vary and are not-so-easy to objectively evaluate.
That’s not to say we haven’t seen drivers, cars, and teams function pretty well as brands in the past; Richard Petty and his tenure with STP comes to mind, and so does the career of Dale Earnhardt, his ties to Richard Childress Racing, the number “3,” his legendary “Flying Aces” pit crew, and his relationships with recognized “brand name” sponsors like Wrangler jeans and GM Goodwrench parts and service. Bill Elliott might also have been considered a “brand” at one time, but mainly during his affiliation with both the Ford Motor Company and Coors Beer. Might any driver who’s enjoyed a lengthy relationship with a particular sponsor fit the criteria for being a brand? Such an emotional and professional connection is often how we identify or recognize the competitor. This idea of an athlete being regarded as a “brand” is far from unique, but it has – during recent years – become a central variable within the driver/team/sponsor/fan equation.
It’s naïve to think that only NASCAR is susceptible to this kind of branding identification. Consider the “brand power” of household-name athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, the level of branding that can be reached whenever an individual athlete exceeds a level of recognition enjoyed by the sport in which they compete. The PGA Tour is a known entity, but Tiger Woods was (before all of his personal and marital problems) even bigger in name and image than the entire tour on which he played. Michael Jordan’s reputation and “legend” far exceeded that of the NBA during his playing days, a recognition that was enhanced greatly by the popularity of the famous shoe bearing his famous nickname – a shoe so recognized that I don’t even have to mention the actual “brand” responsible for making and marketing the product! A little fame and a lot of marketing can go a long way.
And therein resides the move toward regarding drivers, teams, and even race cars as individual brands: the driver/sponsor/team/car can become a commercial “product” in its own right and build an image that not only attracts corporate and fan dollars, but also guarantees some level of income for all those associated in some way with the driver/sponsor/team/car. It can generate a “win-win-win-win” through the creation, cultivation, and commercialization of a recognizable and/or memorable persona. The cultivation of such relationships is essential during these days of a recessed economy that’s unable to supply needed funding for the drivers and teams who compete for not only wins, but also valuable monetary resources.
According to Graeme Turner, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Queensland in Australia, it’s important for a celebrity (as in a recognized and/or “famous” athlete) to “develop their public persona as a commercial asset and their career choices, in principle, should be devoted to that objective.” (“The Economy of Celebrity,” in “Stardom and Celebrity: a Reader” (2005) by Sage Publications) The key here is to create “profiling” or “branding” for a particular product through the incorporation of a recognizable personality. If the name is familiar, audiences will be more inclined to remember the associated connections – as in being able to link a driver with their team and their sponsor. Each of these separate “pieces” is important to the overall “package,” but it’s because of that that the entire operation succeeds in making a memorable impression on a fan/consumer.
We’ve seen much of this movie before. More than a century ago, Barney Oldfield – America’s first “professional” race car driver – put Graeme Turner’s “celebrity-commodity” theory into practice. Automobile racing was in its infancy, and the sport was just as expensive then (in relation to the economy of the time) as it is today. Oldfield discovered the power of his public persona early in his career by cultivating ties to companies that 1) could afford to sponsor his racing activities and 2) could benefit from a promotional boost via his on-track accomplishments. He pre-dated Jeff Gordon as a “celebrity spokesman” for Pepsi-Cola by nearly a century, touting the “bracing” beverage’s benefits in magazine advertisements as early as 1902. During his career, Barney Oldfield built relationships with such companies as Socony Oil, Firestone Tires (“my only life insurance”), and what would eventually become Mercedes-Benz. Oldfield also leveraged his persona through appearances in movies, on radio shows, and through columns he wrote for various newspapers. America’s “Speed King” recognized the inherent give-and-take nature of motorsports, and he was more than willing to “give” as much as he “took.”
Today we look at press agents or sponsor representatives as little more than an extension of a race car driver’s arm. This notion also dates back to the days of Barney Oldfield, who employed a “manager” named Will Pickens to oversee his contacts (and appearances) in the media. Press releases would be sent in advance of races or exhibition events, with newspaper and magazine interviews “suggested” as a means of drumming up business. Oldfield’s many accomplishments in race cars (first man to drive a-mile-a-minute, won 18-of-20 races in the Peerless “Green Dragon” during 1904, established a world’s land speed record of 131.724 mph in 1910) had already earned him “household-name” recognition, but it was through his affiliation with Pickens that Oldfield-the-racer was transformed into Oldfield-the-folk hero/legend.
One way that Barney Oldfield would play to the crowd at a time trial exhibition or a match race would be to feign a mechanical problem just as competitors received the call to start their engines. Prior to the pre-exhibition event, one of Oldfield’s crew would quietly loosen or remove a spark plug wire; when Barney fired up the Ford/Peerless/Fiat/Benz/Stutz/whatever he was driving that day, the motor would misfire sickly as the other cars took to the track. While nearly-panicked spectators (and Oldfield fans) watched intently, Oldfield would circle his racer, chew on his cigar, tip his head so as to better “diagnose” the problem, then calmly reach under the hood to “fix” his sputtering mount (and how he ever replaced a spark plug wire on a running engine without jolting himself silly remains a mystery to me). The car would suddenly roar back to healthy life, and Oldfield would jump behind the wheel to try and set a new record (often through a slip of the stopwatch) or settle an old score. What looked like mechanical genius on the part of Barney Oldfield was little more than a parlor trick – a ruse designed to create tension and curiosity in the exploits of the driver from Wauseon, Ohio.
Oldfield was also not above creating “competition yellows” to enhance his own heroic/mythic persona. We talk endlessly about drivers who supposedly receive team orders to take a spin (literally) or to tag the wall in an attempt to bring out a much-needed caution flag for fuel, or tires, or both. Toss in a “lucky dog” wave-around, and all of a sudden you’ve got a better race (hooray for my driver, boo for yours). Did Paul Menard engage in such behavior earlier this season, much to the chagrin and publicized anger of Jeff Gordon? While NASCAR’s books have been closed on that particular case (they say nay), such behavior was far-from-unusual back during Barney Oldfield’s career.
History has it that Oldfield would sometimes assess his performance during a race, then decide if it was in his (and his supporters’) best interests to finish way back in the field. If the chances for victory seemed poor, Barney might simply spin his car and slide it gingerly against the fence. This usually brought out more than just the caution flag; such a move also tended to bring out the sympathies of fans who now wondered if Oldfield would be able to make the next event. Would his car be too damaged to compete the next week? Would the fan favorite return to competition after shaking off this recent mishap? Deceitfulness aside, Barney Oldfield would often turn such a bash into cash as interest would be generated for the next race on the schedule. By the time teams met for their next event, the word would be out (thanks to Barney’s press agent) that Oldfield was back and ready to race, and the fans would show up by the wagon load to watch what might happen once the green flag flew.
It’s safe to say that racing has come a long way since those early years of rough-and-tumble competition (or has it?). Despite over a century of cars and stars, the emphasis on attracting sponsorship and cultivating consumer/fan loyalty remains a constant. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that we stand back and watch as drivers are being transformed into/promoted as “brands” with financially viable personas. All this “meshing together” is a natural part of NASCAR Nation circa 2011, but as the crystal ball grows even cloudier for the 2012 season, will we not see more “branding” done for more drivers who are in search of more sponsorship? Is the creation of “brands” the new way to snag dwindling dollars? Can just anyone become a brand?
Branding is easy when you consider what a driver like Danica Patrick brings to the negotiating table. Her physical appearance (and the fact that’s she’s open to using said appearance to attract media attention) is part of the image “cultivation” idea. Regardless of whether she’s promoting a line of luxury timepieces, representing a business like Go Daddy, posing for a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit photograph, or making an appearance at the MTV Music Awards, Patrick’s image is leveraged across multiple markets, in part, because of her beauty.
Danica Patrick’s brand is also enhanced by her candor when sitting for interviews about all kinds of subjects. She can answer questions about driving at Daytona just as easily as she can about fashion styles, gourmet cooking, or fine wines. Being a well-rounded person helps further cultivate Danica Patrick’s “brand.” Her Sprint Cup sponsorships might seem a little sluggish at this point in 2011, but rest assured that significant corporate money will come to her through effective marketing of her individual (and overall team) brand.
One thing about branding is that sometimes the brand exceeds the business being done – the product assumes an identity of its own through widespread recognition. This phenomenon is what happened to Kleenex, which has become synonymous with tissues of any brand. The same is true for Xerox (can I make “Xerox copies” on the Kyocera copier in my office? Not really, but the terminology applies). Something similar happened with the NBA accomplishments of Michael Jordan and the creation of his aforementioned Nike basketball shoes; Jordan’s persona overshadowed the NBA and how the sport became recognizable in the eyes of the general population. Even if you weren’t a basketball fan, well, you could still recognize Jordan’s name and his occupation anyway. And by being able to recognize that kind of information, it greatly improved the chances that you could then identify the team for which he played. Suddenly, the athlete, his team, and a product affiliated with him hit the “branding” win-win-win trifecta. A whole lot of “connecting the dots” equated into a whole lot of bucks.
So it sounds as though this is what Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, and 5-Hour Energy are all hoping to accomplish in 2012. Clint Bowyer will bring the power of his persona as part of his “brand”. Bowyer’s brand will then be matched to the marketing machine already in existence at MWR, which includes recognition of the Toyota brand as it has been cultivated through numerous seasons of NASCAR competition. 5-Hour Energy is hitching its brand to Bowyer’s wagon for 20 to 24 races, with space for the remaining 12-or-so events open for another interested and/or financially-capable brand.
Is there another product (or two, or three) out there that might be the right fit into the Bowyer/MWR equation? Such is the NASCAR way circa 2011, where accumulating financial backers is just as vital as accumulating championship points. But it’s been that way for over a century, when increasing competition for increasing purses forced teams to attract and maintain increasing sponsorship so they might keep up the pace and earn the living they so rightly deserve.
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