The recently released movie, Ford vs Ferrari or Le Mans ’66 as it’s known in Europe, has been creating a buzz among auto enthusiasts and casual motorists alike. And despite the thrills and spills explored in the movie while telling the compelling tale of how Ford decided to conquer Le Mans, there was actually a very corporate reason at the heart of Ford’s actions, and it wasn’t Ford’s enthusiasm for racing. It was their enthusiasm to sell cars.
In fact, since time immemorial, motorsport, and touring car racing in particular, has been the go-to method of marketing an automotive brand. Just take a look at how the landscape of the British Touring Car Championship changed in the 60s. The racing series went from being dominated by Mini Coopers to becoming a hotbed for competition between Ford and Mini. Why did this happen? This happened because it was a no-brainer for General Motors to market the shiny new Ford Cortina by pitting it against the most popular cars in Britain and beating them on the race track.
Jim Clark on his way to victory in the 1964 British Touring Car Championship ©Autocar magazine
There was simply no better way of marketing their brand.
This hasn’t changed all that much since then. One visit to a touring car racing series in Europe and you will see that customers are able to watch the race and then buy the car that won, at the track itself.
There is a very specific reason for this type of marketing: The ethos of a touring car racing series is the use of cars that are available to everyone. It is a way of showing customers and enthusiasts the true potential of the cars they are buying, and when you consider the slowdown of the automotive sector, leveraging motorsport to market an automotive brand is proving to be as effective as ever.
The reason for the existence of a touring car racing series is multi-faceted. Yes, the overtakes, the crashes and the drama of touring car racing are gripping, but it also makes business sense.
To further understand how racing and business are interrelated, let us look at a more recent example, here in India. When Volkswagen launched in India, there was a whole lot of gaggle about the advertising campaign that launched their mainstays: the Beetle, the Polo and the Vento. A few years after they’d launched, the advertising campaigns were limited to their bigger flagships, and to market their more economical customer cars, they used motorsport.
India saw the likes of the Polo cup, the Vento cup and the Ameo cup. Volkswagen soon became a major player in all forms of racing across the nation. Polos proved to be incredibly popular in the Rallying format and Ventos had expanded beyond being a ‘cup car’ and had entered the Indian Touring Car Championship, the very top level of Touring Car racing in India.
The VW Vento trailing Race Concepts’ Honda City in Round 1 of the championship 2019 ©Anand Philar
This made sense, not just when it came to amping up the appeal of the car, but also when it came to marketing the car itself. Volkswagen perhaps realized that the cost of running a racing series was comparable, if not lesser than running a major ad campaign across traditional media formats, but that’s not all. It also presented them with an opportunity to consistently generate a unique vein of content and a way to engage their customers and potential clients.
This leads us to an important realization: that investing marketing monies in racing is worthwhile simply because it appeals to the right audience, and also helps create marketing material that is wildly different from the competition. It seems to have worked too, with sales of VW cars going up by 4% in September 2019 alone.
The answer is simple. They don’t. One look any Rallying grid or Touring Car series will tell you that while manufacturers provide support, not all of them take on the hassle of building the race car themselves. This task is delegated to a dedicated racing team. This is true with how the Ford Cortinas were built by Lotus in the 60s and is true today with how all the VW Polos you see in Indian rallying are tuned by privateers.
This type of relationship is still in a nascent stage in India, with Mahindra and Volkswagen being one of the few manufacturers to see value in using motorsport to market their brand on the rally circuit, but the trend is catching on in touring car racing.
A good way of understanding which privateer is the right one to back is to see if they’ve had success against a factory-backed team. Why so? Because, when a private team goes up against a factory team, it is a David and Goliath battle. The funds that go behind the racing programs, the manpower and the depth of the parts bin are worlds apart when you compare a factory team to a privateer. So, when a private team outperforms a factory racing team, it is a measure of their mettle.
To sum up, from the very beginning of the sport, touring car racing has always been a way for manufacturers to create awareness and marketing material for their brands. However, the role of a manufacturer in racing goes far beyond that. A manufacturer’s involvement isn’t just a way to uniquely market the brand to an exceedingly relevant audience. It is also perhaps the only way that the entire motorsport ecosystem, including drivers, teams, stewards, organizers and of course, the manufacturers themselves can grow and become a part of something much bigger.
Race Concepts is a leading racing team in India that competes across all formats of the sport. The team currently holds the lap record in all major circuits in the country and also has what could well be the world’s fastest FWD 1.5l SOHC Honda City in the world in its stable.
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