‘They’ve got to want us and want to love us’ – how Martini uses Williams F1 to show its racing DNA

In March, just before the start of the 2014 season, the Williams Formula One team confirmed a multi-year title sponsorship deal with drinks brand Martini. It marked the start of a marriage between one of the sport’s most popular and historic teams and a company whose red and blue stripes once memorably adorned Brabham and Lotus cars of the mid to late-1970s.

In March, just before the start of the 2014 season, the Williams Formula One team confirmed a multi-year title sponsorship deal with drinks brand Martini. It marked the start of a marriage between one of the sport’s most popular and historic teams and a company whose red and blue stripes once memorably adorned Brabham and Lotus cars of the mid to late-1970s.

The title deal with Williams, understood to be worth US$15 million per year, has seen the Martini stripes return and has coincided with an upturn in form for Williams – or, as the team is now known, Williams Martini Racing. The highlight of the first half of the 2014 season was in Austria, where drivers Felipe Massa and Valterri Bottas took first and second on the grid. Bottas followed up the team’s first podium finish of the year, a third place at the Red Bull Ring, with a combative drive to second place at Silverstone two weeks ago.

A positive start to the partnership on the track, then, but as Andy Gibson, Martini’s chief marketing officer, explained to SportsPro, the roll-out of the brand’s extensive activation campaign is a work in process. Indeed, halfway through the first season of the deal, Martini is only just getting started.

Why was the time right for Martini to return to top-level motorsport?

As a brand-builder, I think the answers to brands coming to greatness, being in greatness or rediscovering their greatness is all in the past. Martini, for instance, is 152 years old and the founders of the brand actually built the brand through different media strategies and association strategies. Racing, and not just motor racing, is in the DNA of the brand and the lifestyle that surrounds racing is in the DNA of the brand. When I started back at the company – I’ve only been here a year now – we were looking to position Martini for its next phase, its next stage of growth, we were looking to get the positioning and growth drivers right and to bring the iconic stripes back into racing was a natural thing to do. It’s where the brand needs to be as an iconic brand.

Did you look at other racing series or were you always focused on getting into Formula One?

We looked at various series. You look at our consumer base and where the interest levels are and where the growth is, you look at where the global participation of the fanbase is. Formula One, quite naturally, ticked all those boxes. We feel like our current fanbase is interested in the sport and actually the lifestyle that surrounds the sport. We feel like our future growth markets are certainly either very interested in the sport now or the interest is growing at a rapid rate. Obviously we felt the positioning of Formula One, as the elite of motorsport, and Martini being the elite vermouth brand – there was a fit right across.

Was it always the intention to go in at such a scale, as a title sponsor of a team?

We can’t have consumers just know about us. They’ve got to want us and want to love us. In order to have that kind of impact, one has to do bold moves. We could have just put a logo on a car and been involved in motorsport, which would have allowed me to do some form of leverage, or I can go in and say ‘I’m on the grid, I’m the title sponsor, the iconic Martini stripes are back where they need to be and, consumer, we’re going to bring you activities out of this relationship that hopefully you like and want to be involved in’ – I believe that’s the only way. We were definitely looking to make a big statement with our move back into motorsport.

How many teams did you talk to and what kind of timelines are we talking about in terms of discussions and then finalising on Williams?

We spoke to a number of teams. We engaged through JMI. We didn’t necessarily talk to all the teams we looked at. Then when the Williams opportunity came up it became a relatively easy and quick conversation. Williams is an iconic, foundational brand in Formula One – a winning brand, perhaps not in the most recent years but historically a winning brand in the sport. When you talked to [deputy team principal] Claire Williams, [chief executive] Mike O’Driscoll and Sir Frank about what they’re doing, about what they love, about how confident they were feeling about this year, you started to understand that they’re a family company, just like Bacardi is. Their values aligned very, very closely with the values that the Bacardi company believes in. It became a quick and quite easy conversation.

“Martini, I would argue, is probably one of the most iconic brands through motorsport history and has a right to be there.”

The deal itself was announced very close to the opening race of the season in March. How have you gone about activating the partnership, given the tight timeframe?

I’ve got a young team that have aged significantly in the last six months, there’s no doubt about that. We negotiated this partnership in reasonably short time and reasonably close to the opening of the season. We were very careful to try and ensure we kept a lid on it for as long as we could – we wanted the announcement to be done in the right way and I believe the launch was done in the right way. In parallel to that we’ve been building activation programmes. What you will see is Martini Racing starting to show up in places that sell liquor to consumers in what we call the off-trade right across Europe. You’ll start to see Martini Racing show up – Barcelona [the Spanish Grand Prix, in May] was where we first started our consumer facing activation, and I’m not just talking PR, I’m talking product activation. You started to see from Barcelona onwards Martini Racing showing up in bars all over Europe and in the coming months you’ll start to see Martini Racing show up in travel retail, not just in Europe but around the world. Our first focus getting what we call our Martini home markets away, which is Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia. We’ll have full activation programmes this season, right across those geographies and we’re now working on the activation programmes across Asia, Latin America and North America. You’ll start to see that come online towards the back of the season, but in earnest full-scale at the start of next season.

Where are the key Martini markets?

Southern Europe is really important for us – they are core markets for Martini. The growing east of Europe and Russia are our developing markets right now, but as we go further afield and develop the Martini brand across Asia, Latin America and lastly the US, this platform is going to be hugely important for us. I think there’s an important difference which is becoming evident for marketers: marketing is no longer just a one way conversation from brands at consumers, it needs to be a two way conversation – I know that’s a bit glib and it’s been talked about, but it’s true. If brands don’t find passion points, platforms that consumers are truly engaged in, and want to be involved in and find a way to authentically be in that passion point and enhance that consumer’s experience of the brand and the passion point, I believe brands will wither on the vine. I do expect to see, as the sport continues to grow its fanbase across a lot of geographies, more consumer marketers to see it as a vehicle through which they can authentically engage with their consumers.

To what extent will you, as the months and years of this deal progress, trade on Martini’s history within motorsport?

Consumers today can sense inauthenticity and if you don’t have a right to be involved in the things they love, it doesn’t resonate and they’ll tell you. Martini, I would argue, is probably one of the most iconic brands through motorsport history and has a right to be there. We’ve now got to work with our consumer base to actually have the thing come to life in a way that adds value to their passion point. You’ll see things like limited edition products, money can’t buy experiences. You’ll actually see merchandise, we’ll give consumers the opportunity to wear the iconic Martini Racing stripes and they’re asking us ‘where is the merchandise, I want it’. This thing will show up right across all the touchpoints you’d expect it to and hopefully, and consumers will let us know, we’ll do it in a way that’s adding value to their lives, their sport, their love.  

Martini’s one of a number of drinks brands active in Formula One, and one of a small number of title sponsors. How closely have you observed the way that other brands go about activation these kind of partnerships?

I think one has to stay close to what the competition is doing and I respect and admire the competition, in many ways, for what they do. I think the difference with Martini is we can bring the Italian bella vita, the beautiful life, to racing. Of course it’s important to us what happens on track, of course it’s important to us what’s happening around the sport and the technical side but what people expect from Martini are the piazzas, the lifestyle and the off the track glamour that goes along with Formula One. What I’m confident of is that we are and will be able to differentiate ourselves. We’ll be focused on bringing to life a slightly different element of the Formula One experience.

Williams are having a terrific year, but they’re not yet a winning team again. Does it matter to Martini whether you win?

I think any team participates to win. For us, we’ve set very realistic expectations with the Williams team around their progression and development and performance. They are probably ahead of where they’d thought they’d be. We’re delighted with the progress they’re making.

How careful, how wary, do you have to be given the fact Martini is an alcohol brand sponsoring a Formula One team, bearing in mind ‘drive safely’ campaigns?

First of all, it’s important for me to say that the company, Bacardi, takes the responsible consumption of alcohol super-seriously. We’re absolutely clear we have a role to play in ensuring adults consume alcohol responsibly. That’s not just about driving, that’s about all aspects of responsible consumption. Most of our focus, with the Martini Racing sponsorship, will be focused on off-track activities, the lifestyle. Secondly, we do think Formula One gives us a vehicle to drive responsible consumption messaging, particularly around driving, and we’re working right now on what our position is there and what our plan of communications is around that area. We’ll come out with a very responsible, very accountable position where we’ll take what we’re doing in Formula One and turn it into an educational programme.

Give us an idea of how you will measure a sponsorship that has several different moving parts to it?

The first thing is that our consumers are engaging and enjoying what we’re doing. Consumers have to see this as an activity, a sponsorship or an engagement platform that actually has our brand weaved into their lives in a way they enjoy. We’ll measure brand health as one of the core criteria. We measure how we’re progressing as a team with Williams and how they, we and other sponsors they have are progressing, not only in the sport but how consumers are feeling about the partnership – there needs to be a positive-ness. The bottom line is we have to see that the thing is commercially viable. We’ll be tracking how effective the dollars are that we’re spending in helping us achieve the goals we want to achieve for the Martini brand.

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