Sponsorship investment better than The Big Gamble?

If you're an IndyCar fan like Paul Dalbey, you might be wondering why on earth a company would drop three million dollars for thirty seconds' worth of Super Bowl ad time when that same amount of money would pay for a full-season primary sponsorship on a competitive IZOD IndyCar Series team.

"Half way through the first quarter," Paul tweeted, "and Bud Light could have already sponsored three competitive IndyCar rides for 2011."

This being Twitter, of course, Paul was bombarded with second-guessers who pointed out - rather accurately, unfortunately - that the number of eyeballs that Super Bowl ads reach in those thirty seconds would be larger than the entire IndyCar season's TV viewership.

Paul's rebuttal to this blowback makes an interesting point - that the viral nature of Super Bowl ads ensures short-term water cooler buzz, but that they rarely produce a lasting image like an IndyCar sponsorship does.

Although I wouldn't argue with images like the STP turbine, the Marlboro-branded Penske cars, or the John Player or Pennzoil Specials, I'd have to disagree with Paul about some of his other examples. He might have been able to tell everyone that Rachel's Potato Chips was on Eddie Cheever's car, as would most of the rest of the IRL faithful for whom the story became legend, but outside of our cloistered little world I doubt that anyone even knows what Rachel's Potato Chips are. Nor would they be able to say, "Oh yes, the Dean Van Lines Special," and even I don't know what he's talking about when he mentions "Leader Cards." (Ed. Note: Upon further review, Sam Posey drove the Leader Card Special at Indy in 1962. Who knew? Not me, apparently. When I was growing up, Sam Posey was just a thoroughly irritating TV announcer, not a former driver. So sue me.)

In other words, the lasting image value of these particular sponsorships only resonate with die-hard IndyCar fans - not with American society in general. The long-term benefit, therefore, is quite minimal in terms of marketing. The odds of becoming an iconic visual brand for an Indy 500 winner are 1 in 33 each year, and that's not even mentioning the risk of not even making the race - a situation that has certainly played out over the 100 years since the first Indianapolis 500-Mile race.

So sure, a $3 million investment for 30 seconds may seem extravagant, but you're talking about a guaranteed domestic audience of 100 million people, many of whom aren't even football fans, as your captive audience for those 30 seconds. The viral nature and reputation of Super Bowl advertising actually makes it more likely that someone takes a pee break or goes to get more cheese dip during the actual on-field action than during commercials.

There is nothing in IndyCar marketing or advertising that can match that immediate marketing punch, nor will there ever be - not even during the Indianapolis 500.

But wait, I'm not done. In no way, shape, or form am I saying that that an IndyCar sponsorship cannot offer comparative value to a Super Bowl advertisement. Because it can - just in a different milieu.

I'll offer an example. Doritos spent tens of millions of dollars to promote heavily during the Super Bowl this year. And their message worked - my kids immediately pestered us to include Doritos for dinner, and my wife, who hates football, had a handful as well. The same scenario played out in homes around the world. In terms of immediate marketing value, Doritos got their money's worth.

But fast-forward two months from now. Will Doritos' massive marketing push on February 6th, 2011 still be reaping dividends? Most likely not. Super Bowl commercials may still be in rotation - sometimes heavy rotation - but the immediacy is gone. The viral attraction will have played itself out, and the buzz will be stale. Activation for those ads is largely short-term.

An IndyCar sponsorship, on the other hand, is a full-year activation. Planning begins months before the start of the season proper, with a structured promotional and public relations plan conceived around the program. Whereas a Super Bowl ad is the equivalent of a banzai charge, an IndyCar sponsorship is a siege, carefully crafting a message that seeps in and sticks over the course of months - even years, if the relationship stays in place between sponsor and team.

Grabbing the attention of 100 million people in one shot is no small feat, to be sure, but consider how much attention can be garnered over the course of eight months' worth of racing. A fully-activated sponsorship includes TV exposure via commercials, trackside promotions, public appearances, marketing opportunities, and much more (depending on the ability of the people brokering the sponsorship activation, of course). Through those efforts, the potential number of hits over the course of a full season is significantly higher than a Super Bowl campaign, and it can be done for the same price.

You might say that a NASCAR sponsorship would provide more value with the Sprint Cup's longer schedule, better network deal, and higher visibility. But consider this - top team sponsorships cost almost $30 million per year for a primary deal, and the NASCAR networks do not mention those sponsorships on the air unless they receive an additional stipend. NASCAR sponsorships that approach the IndyCar price point for primary sponsorships are so minor that the decals can only be seen by means of a close-up physical inspection of the race vehicle.

Marketing people whose focus is on the past might point to the anemic IndyCar exposure levels post-Split, and that is a hard roadblock to overcome. But in a glass-half-full appraisal, it is difficult to see how an IndyCar sponsorship going forward is not promising ground-floor investment. The new 2012 technical package with its higher relevance and more open standards, combined with this year's centennial anniversary of the Indy 500 and the upcoming 100th race, topped off by the purchase of Comcast by NBC Universal which intends to rebrand VERSUS into an ESPN/FOX-level sports entity all add up to a great deal of forward momentum for the sanction.

In the end, it comes down to the greatest total value for a sponsor. And a lasting relationship -partnership - with an IndyCar team simply generates more long-term value than a splashy, expensive ad that may or may go viral. Plus, a TV network simply takes your money for an ad - a race team returns the investment through their own promotional and collaborative efforts.

The message for corporate America is this: there are still great deals to be had for a good price in IndyCar, and sometimes 30 seconds of exposure just aren't enough. 

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