The F1 marketing push that ultimately led to ‘drive to survive’

When Liberty Media bought Formula 1, the sport was in decline. Fan engagement had long trumped the money-making urges of former leadership under Bernie Ecclestone – and if Liberty’s investment was to pay off, it needed to attract fans quickly. Step into the years-long marketing push that ultimately led to the Netflix docuseries Drive to survive.

I recently had the opportunity to view documents from WARC, a marketing firm which commissioned several reports on F1 after the Liberty Media takeover and subsequent changes to the sport. When read together, each paints a fascinating picture of the strategic marketing plans that have seen F1 rise to renewed global interest.

In these documents is proof that Liberty Media knew something was missing from the F1 of the early 2010s, with the company hiring agencies to advise them on media, social media and fan engagement strategy. .

“F1 is full of stories and a database crying out for content,” claimed one article, “Formula 1: A season of high-speed stories”. “Relentless technical innovation, drivers, teams, behind-the-scenes politics and the uniqueness of each circuit was fertile ground. The aim was to hook audiences into multiple narratives, treating each race as the latest episode of a great drama unfolding.

There was just one problem: the fans didn’t realize it.

Another article, “Formula 1: Unleashing the Greatest Racing Spectacle” noted that fans repeatedly claimed “speed” was the thing that drew them to F1, but real-world evidence consistently proved it was. fake. After all, this modern era of F1 machinery is one of immense, record-breaking speed. But it turned out what the fans really wanted was competition.

Racing is inherently different from sprinting in that competition brings a decidedly human element to racing. Speed ​​is cold and clinical, something that can be achieved solo. The competition, on the other hand, pits drivers against teams at all levels and focuses on the key players in the sport. After all, it’s rivalries that bring out passions, raise talking points, and create the storylines so essential to fan engagement.

The big problem with F1 in the mid to late 2010s was that it was an era of Mercedes dominance, not team competition. As a result, the on-track action couldn’t just speak for itself. He needed a helping hand with marketing.

That’s what these ARM reports focus on. As early as 2017, Liberty Media launched several different campaigns to rewrite popular narratives surrounding F1. Long-time fans may recall the “Engineered Insanity” marketing campaign, which was designed not only to create a huge amount of hype – both local and international – around each race, but also to engage fans with carefully curated storytelling and activations with other brands. Remember the NBA crossover with F1 during the 2021 United States Grand Prix? It was part of this cross-brand activation.

Letting the local public know there was an F1 race in town, even if they didn’t know what F1 was been, was a relatively easy feat. Re-engaging long-time fans and getting new fans interested in the F1 drama, however, has been a bit more difficult. Liberty Media has had success in social media and email campaigns, ‘Formula 1: A Season of High Speed ​​Stories’ reported, but it wasn’t exactly reaching new audiences. After all, you already had to be interested in F1 to see tweets or emails from the series.

Enter Netflix.

As Sam Peña-Taylor wrote in “How Formula 1 Finds New Audiences Through Netflix”, Netflix guaranteed international distribution to all sorts of different people. Yes, long-time F1 fans would watch the show, but it would also be in the algorithms of people who may not watch F1 but are interested in other sports, reality TV or documentaries. And, with widespread success on release day, it would also be likely to appear on the app’s list of trending shows.

The article in question was published in September 2019, which means that Drive to survive was still relatively new. Netflix is ​​wary with stats and details, but it noted that the series was in the top 10% of the binge metric, meaning people watching the show tended to watch everything very quickly.

The strategy paid off on the F1 side, however. The COVID-19 lockdowns saw a spike in Netflix usage, meaning more people had more time to watch something like Drive to survive.

When they did, however, F1’s efforts to develop a more comprehensive fan experience paid off. F1 fans in America had easy access to live racing coverage via ESPN or F1TV, and F1’s social media presence was accommodating to anyone looking to get the latest racing news or data. F1 has redesigned the experience of watching a race to appeal to viewers like part of the actnot a consumer of a product.

Perhaps most important to the series, however, fans of the sport became more valuable because they had become more engaged and, therefore, more loyal.

“Formula 1: Putting fans at the heart of Formula 1”, published at the end of 2020, gives the data: after F1 launched its marketing campaign in 2017, the sport saw sales increase by 209% compared to the control group of fans who had watched the sport before this push on social media. These fans were also worth £6m more than the control group – around $7.5m in America – as these fans were more likely to spend more time engaging and buying F1 content. This meant that F1 and Liberty Media not only met their targets, but exceeded them and doubled them.

What is particularly fascinating is that this data did not even take into account the 2021 season, which also experienced record growth, especially in coveted markets like America.

Liberty Media’s goal – to create more story-rich content to attract fans – would have naturally led to a show like Drive to survivebut the continued success of docuseries and F1 is the result of Liberty Media’s extensive efforts to create engaging storytelling. everywhere, from social media to in-person ads.

Without SDR, it’s hard to imagine that F1 would have reached the level of popularity it enjoys today. But without all the other effort F1 has put into the rest of its publicity, it’s unlikely that SDR would have been so successful – and that’s a big reason why other attempts to recreate a SDR-type show in order to see a massive spike in fanbase growth failed for other racing series like Formula E. The secret was never right Drive to survive; instead, Drive to survive was the top of a solidly built pyramid ready for any fans who found it.