Formula One’s Ellie Norman on a new marketing approach, attracting fans and esports

Ahead of the Black Book Digital Motorsport Summit, Black Book spoke to Formula One head of marketing Ellie Norman about grid girls, F1 TV and promoting the competition from a blank canvas.

Formula One’s Ellie Norman on a new marketing approach, attracting fans and esports

Ahead of the Digital Motorsport Summit, Ellie Norman, Formula One’s head of marketing, spoke to Black Book to discuss leading the series’ first marketing campaigns, the importance of over-the-top (OTT) platform F1 TV in appealing to a new generation of fans, increasing the accessibility of the drivers and the reasoning behind the decision to bring an end to the use of grid girls.

How has Formula One’s marketing efforts evolved since the arrival of Liberty Media?

Things have changed significantly to the extent that under the previous management, there wasn’t a marketing or communications function.

Certainly from my perspective, it is the most incredible opportunity to come into a 60-year-old start-up that has never really had any sort of marketing and to be able to really help to shape the sport, its future so we can really understand what fans want from the sport.

What we are really focusing on now is putting the fan at the heart of what we do. We talk a lot internally and we say that if it doesn’t serve the fans, then it doesn’t serve F1. We are trying to ensure that the sport pivots much more towards a media and entertainment brand, with the soul of a race car driver.

It is really important that we don’t lose the DNA of the sport and of what makes the sport so special and unique. But we do definitely have to start looking towards the future.

F1 launched a new logo and its first ever marketing campaign ahead of the 2018 season – was that move almost symbolic of the new era that the series is embarking on? 

It started with a huge piece of fan research across the globe and we spoke to avid fans, casual fans and people that are not fans at all to really understand the perceptions and associations that people had with Formula One.

From that research was born the mission statement – ‘to unleash the greatest racing spectacle on the planet’, with five guiding principles: to revel in the racing, to break borders, to make the spectacle more spectacular, feel the blood boil and to taste the oil.

We truly felt that with the perceptions that were associated with the sport and with where we needed to move to, it was vitally important that if we were going to pivot and evolve the sport, we needed to signify change and to look at creating a logo that was suitable for today and also was futureproofed.

In what areas do you think F1 has been lagging behind other major sport properties? How are you trying to bring the series up to speed?

We have put more time behind social, encouraging the teams and the drivers who, in the past, had been sent cease and desist letters when posting social media content that had social media in it.

Now we are working with them to produce relevant content in formats and in length that is going to engage an audience - looking at content collaboration with partners, getting behind the scenes to allow fans to see that the sport is far more accessible and really getting to know who those heroes and racing drivers are.

We have the best technology, the best engineers; we are the most innovative sport in the world. That is what people want to feel close to.

The third thing that we are focusing on is that sense of being on the edge – we have those opposing forces of the most advanced machines on the planet with humans that have a completely limitless mindset as to how far you can push things that for most of us is not possible. That is incredibly appealing to fans.

By being able to put those into digital form, we are able to connect with a younger audience. Through that, we know what it is both resonating and working. In growing our social following substantially, this year will be the second year running that we will be the fastest growing sporting property on social media.

We have been growing at about 62 per cent both this year and last year. Esports is another thing that we have really focused on, which has been incredibly successful.

Under Liberty Media Formula One has made a concerted effort to increase its fan engagement

F1 has ramped up its efforts across various digital platforms over the past year - most notably in the form of F1 TV and the new esports series. Would it be fair to say that the series is beginning to prioritise reaching the next generation of fan?

On the esports side, it has been so encouraging to see how many people have participated in entering their laps and their desire to be selected by the actual F1 teams themselves. We had nine out of the ten F1 teams participate, where they came to the selection processes to pick drivers to represent their teams.

This professionalism that has been put into training these virtual racers with full-on simulators, mental coaching and reaction tests very much replicates what our actual F1 drivers already do.

This has really started to be more and more successful. That teaches us a lot about how fans want to engage with the sport and what people find interesting.

On the F1 TV side, it has been incredibly complicated. OTT doesn’t come without its challenges, because you are working with so much complexity. But we have 24 live streams; you get the linear TV view, you get to choose your commentary language, you get to listen to team radio and you can select the driver’s view of all 20 drivers.

This year has very much been up in beta soft-launch mode and the focus has very much been on driving stability with the product and understanding through our subscribers what the things are that they want to engage with and interact with and what we can do more with within the product.

As we go into 2019, we can take that insight with us as we look to further improve and evolve that product.

As we look at the overall media mix of free-to-air, pay-TV and direct-to-consumer, all three of those things can work alongside each other. What we have found is that it tends to be additive, in that a lot of those subscribers who are taking F1 TV may have a pay-TV subscription if that is available in their market.

But actually that pay-TV provider will cover the free practice, highlights, qualifying and the live race. What they want is the greater depth in how they access that, plus having the ability to access a lot of the archive races. We have got Formula Two coming into the product next year, as well as increasing the archive pack.

What they are given is that additional depth that those pay-TV providers don’t have because there just isn’t that room in the scheduling.

When it comes to broadcast strategy, the series is trying to balance free-to-air, pay-TV and direct-to-consumer

In what ways are you trying to boost the profile of your drivers by giving fans more content which showcases the characters underneath the helmet?

The sport under the old management had become inaccessible, exclusive and almost very clinical. Those perceptions and associations that fans want with the sport is to feel close to the drivers. They want to know who’s underneath the helmet, what’s making them tick and what’s motivating them to go out and win.

Every driver is so different and will have different hobbies and interests that fans want to be able to associate themselves with, as well as wanting to support a team and a driver. They want to find out what their similarities are and what their characteristics are.

We have looked at every aspect of the business where we have an ability to connect with fans to make the sport more accessible. We do that through the broadcast – we now show the drivers without their helmets on and in the grid line-up we show the drivers’ faces. It is really trying to make the sport much easier to follow on television.

When you are a fan of the sport, you get it and you get excited by the strategy and you want all that extra data and analysis. But for those getting into the sport, you do want a little bit of a helping hand.

You don’t have to follow football, but you can turn on the TV and have a gist for what’s going on. That’s much harder in Formula One, so we have looked at what the product is that we are putting out to fans and we have asked ourselves how we can make that more engaging.

You were one of the key figures behind the decision to get rid of F1's grid girls - how did that move tie in with the new picture F1 is trying to paint of itself?

It is fair to say that it wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. We asked ourselves a couple of questions; if we were to create a sport today, would you have grid girls in there? Our answer was no.

If we were to create a sport today, would you have grid girls in there? Our answer was no

The second question was about what the actual role of the grid girl is. When we actually thought about it, it was that they were holding a board with the driver’s name and number on it. The marshals and team engineers are located where the cars get positioned and the teams are putting the cars in their qualifying positions, and the drivers absolutely know what cars they are getting into.

The fans in the grandstand cannot see the number on the board and the cars and drivers are actually covered by the cameras on the grid in any case. When we worked through this process by asking some pretty logical questions, the answer was no. Therefore, it was easy for us to remove them.

Also, as we look to the future of the sport, we are the most advanced engineering and innovative sport out there. It would be a dream of mine to have young people – both boys and girls – coming through with the desire of having a job in F1, just as much as they want a job at Apple or Amazon or Google or any other tech business.

Therefore, it was important for us that we removed what was perceived as quite an old gender stereotype. By removing it, we have started to elevate and show some of the great work that is happening in the sport. We have got incredible women in the sport, who are working as engineers, composite engineers, aerodynamicists, strategists and in the pit crew.

I would love to see in my lifetime a female Formula One racing driver that is competing there on merit because she’s bloody brilliant. We are seeing more and more young female talent come up in racing across a number of different series.

Ellie Norman is a member of the Black Book advisory board, register your interest for the upcoming Black Book Digital Motorsport Summit here