Over the past two years, Formula 1 has undergone a digital transformation since Liberty Media acquired control of the sport.
Last week at the Black Book Motorsport Forum, Motorsport Broadcasting caught up with one of the faces leading the effort to bring F1 into the modern world. Ellie Norman (@ChikinCS) is Formula 1’s Director of Marketing and Communications, and we got her view on how things have gone so far.
Before Formula 1, you had stints at both Honda and Virgin Media, just talk to us about what you were involved in there.
I first spent five years on the agency side, where Honda was my client, and then directly with Honda for eight years, always in a marketing and advertising role.
Through that period, it was always about building meaning and value in the Power of Dreams brand. It was about elevating Honda at that time in the UK and Europe where the perception was that they lagged behind the more established European brands.
I spent five years in between Honda and F1 at Virgin Media. My focus shifted into being one market specific in the UK, so it was great to deepen learning versus working across international markets.
Interestingly it is an entertainment company, so they’re really understanding the landscape of TV consumption, the role that entertainment plays, cord cutting, the involvement of digital platforms, direct to consumer. Moving to F1 is a perfect combination of both automotive and entertainment.
Honda and Virgin Media both have huge marketing teams, yet you join F1 and find that is greenfield in nature, with little marketing, which was quite a culture shock I imagine!
F1 is such an incredible brand with a huge history. Bernie [Ecclestone] did an incredible job to build it into the business that it was, but my perception was that it had been underutilised, and that there was a role marketing could play.
Part of the appeal was having the ability to come into what is close to a 70-year old start-up and to be able to establish marketing from the ground up, agreeing what the infrastructure needed to be, shoring up the fan base, bringing in new fans. And that was exciting, too good of an opportunity for me not to take.
How difficult has it been in your role to attract new fans into F1, without alienating the existing fan base?
You are always treading a balance between holding onto your current fans, knowing who you are and what you stand for, but also needing to adapt and be contextually relevant to the fans of tomorrow, understanding what their motivations are, what platforms they are on and how they can be engaged, and bringing them into your sport.
Ultimately, we are a means of entertainment. The appeal of Formula 1 is that we have an ability to bring large groups of people together around live events. The on-track product is vitally important, but it is the entertainment that surrounds that as well.
15 to 20 years ago, there was one entry point for new fans, in front of the television, whereas now there are many different entry points. Does that make the job more complex?
It is very, very complex, the marketplace is fragmented.
The one thing I think we’re very fortunate with is that live sports is one of the last bastions that does bring millions of people together around a fixed time.
What can you learn from other brands, such as NASCAR, or non-motor sport brands, like the Premier League or Netflix?
It’s always interesting I think to look outside of your own echo chamber. Aside from other live sports, I’m always fascinated to know how entertainment properties operate, for example music festivals such as Glastonbury.
How are they engaging with fans, at a digital level in terms of insight, access, experiences that bring them closer? We can take learnings from that and pull that into Formula 1. I think part of the mentality needs to be an openness to try and to test things.
The fan festivals are a great example of where you can take the richness of the sport out of a race track and into city centres. It’s a visceral sport, the closer that people can get to seeing teams, drivers, hearing and smelling the cars, it moves you, and that’s what we know people love.
You did the ‘Engineered Insanity’ promotion last year, and have continued that this year.
‘Engineered Insanity’ is our brand positioning. It’s man and machine pushed to their limit; it’s opposing forces working together in harmony. We launched that brand platform and positioning in 2018, and this year we continued that work.
We brought it to life this year through a partnership with The Chemical Brothers, which was again a way to look outside the echo chamber of motor sport and to work with renowned musicians in their field, who are renowned for engineering their music and to bring those two audiences together. We knew there was an overlap of passion between a Chemical Brothers fan and Formula 1.
It’s interesting when you look at actually where people, and what they’re passionate about, it shows up through gaming, through music, food experiences, and there’s a way where Formula 1 can partner with many different brands within the wider world to take Formula 1 out to that fan base, and be relevant to them.
You cited Netflix earlier as a competitor of someone’s share of time. The Netflix series has been incredibly popular for us, and that was a way for us to reach a light, lapsed or a non-F1 fan through engaging long form content.
E-Sports is massive. We know younger audiences spend an awful lot of time within an E-Sports environment. Now, whether that’s watching it or playing it, Formula 1 is very closely aligned to E-Sports. You’re sitting in a seat, you’ve got your pedals, your steering wheel. We know all our F1 drivers spend hours and hours perfecting their laps within a sim.
So, this is how we can converge those worlds together.
Have you seen the demographics on your social media platforms change because of E-Sports?
Social media has grown ferociously. In the last two years, Frank [Arthofer] and our digital team have grown that to over 23 million people, a 54 percent year-on-year increase, making us the fastest growing sport across social media.
75 to 80 percent of the audience watching E-Sports is below 34 years old, so it’s really shifting the dynamic. We’re taking Formula 1 out, and showing a different side of Formula 1 to these audiences in places they’re already passionate about.
You’re now starting to scrape the surface of both of Formula 1’s feeder series, Formula Two and Formula Three. People may not realise this, but both are Formula 1 properties. [Note from David: this interview was done prior to Anthoine Hubert’s fatal accident at the Belgian Grand Prix]
They are incredible series, very competitive racing, wheel-to-wheel competition, you always have the interesting sprint races, for example with reverse grid in F2. And what we see is a lot of our Formula 1 drivers coming through the ranks of having either raced in Formula Two or Three, and there’s some really interesting characters and stories within those series.
Again, this is about us demonstrating the journey that racing talent goes through to get into Formula 1. There’s much more focus internally on what we can do with Formula Two and Formula Three to bring those closer to Formula 1 and to give them their own spotlight.
It’s F1’s 70th anniversary next year, is there anything in the pipeline that you can tell us?
We are busy back in the office, we have a range of ideas that we would love to see next year. All I can say is watch this space!
My thanks go to Ellie Norman for spending the time with me on the above piece.
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