Speed Demons

On October 24, Schumacher fans were a disappointed lot. The German, who took his seventh title in Belgium in August, fought his way up to seventh place after starting 18th on the grid, but it was too little, too late.

In India too, lots of drooped shoulders could be seen in places screening the F1 race. “Schumi should have won, it would have been a fitting finale to the season he has dominated,” laments Ajit Isaac, CEO, People One Consulting, an ardent F1 fan.

Isaac is one among the growing tribe of F1 enthusiasts who are turning it into a sizeable profitable marketing opportunity with an even bigger potential.

And the companies are recognising this — be it advertisers (LG, IBM, BPCL, Samsung, among others), or luxury brands (Tag Heuer), or beer companies (Foster’s), or restaurants (Sidewalk, Leopold), everybody wants a piece of the action.

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“Just imagine, when we started promoting F1 three-and-a-half years ago, everybody thought we were nuts; people told us that only Bollywood and cricket works here,” laughs Pradeep Gidwani, CEO, Foster’s, the pioneers in promoting F1 in India.

And contrary to what many people think, F1 has grown out of being an urban phenomena popular within a small group of educated and globe-trotting cognoscenti. “The fans can be found among the B class as well,” says Gidwani, who was pleasantly surprised when a crowd of over a hundred turned up at a F1 promotional event in Calicut.

Similar events in cities like Nashik, Vizag, Nagpur and Ludhiana saw decent crowd turnouts. “It’s not a Delhi-Mumbai thing anymore, even the smaller cities have enthusiastic F1 fans,” says Gidwani. Fosters covers 20 cities in its F1 promotions and plans to hold even more next year.

F1 fans are a very loyal lot, who often fall into the high income and high disposable income category, and they love to spend on products that reflect their association with the sport.

For companies, it’s a big opportunity waiting to be tapped. Take the example of Tag Heuer, the LVMH watch brand, which launched its best-seller — Formula One watch — in August here this year, positioning it as an entry-level watch in India.

The product was a runaway hit, in spite of a hefty price tag of Rs 24,600 with the red-coloured model being out of stock in many markets. “The sales have surpassed our expectations. The Formula One model sales tot up to 25% of our volume sales in India,” says Manishi Sanwal, brand manager, Tag Heuer.
Some F1 teams like Ferrari, who franchise their paraphernalia look set to make a killing from royalty proceeds.

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In India, Ferrari has appointed distributors to sell its products — it sells the apparel line through Proline, and has franchised its fragrance to Mumbai-based distributors, Baccarose.

Royal Sporting House, a sports retailer, sells imported Ferrari T-shirts, and is pleasantly surprised at the brand recognition. “In terms of brand equity, it has found reasonable success inspite of being on the higher side on pricing,” says Bhupender Nagpal, CEO, Royal Sporting House.

But Indian companies are also waking up to the fact that the sport generates a fair share of eyeballs.

Worldwide over 300 million people watch each race, and there are 18 races in the season which starts with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March and ends with the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo.

However, Indians don’t contribute much to the global viewership — and getting a fix on the actual number of F1 fans in India is a difficult task. According to ESPN-STAR officials, the rights owners of the property in India, the viewership of F1 has been growing at approximately 17-18% in the metros, and in line with that, the advertiser’s interest has also been on the rise.

“Brands which advertise during the F-1 series like BPCL, MRF, Bridgestone etc, find a good fit with the sport, and have been regular in using it” says Himanshu Verma, director, ESPN Software India.

Some brands are now investing in building brand associations with the sport as they see F1 becoming big in the near future.

Take Tag Heuer for example, which promotes F1 in India by carrying a regular two-page advertorial in a news magazine. “We are spending now, so that when F1 hits big-time in India we’ll be the lifestyle brand that is associated with it,” says Sanwal of Tag Heuer.

And some Indian companies have gone ahead and even sponsored Narain Karthikeyan, the F3 driver, who is backed by Kingfisher and JK Tyres, among other international sponsors like Opel, Mobil and Ford.

There are restaurants within five-star hotels who have started marketing these races as events to attract the well-heeled F1 enthusiasts.

So whether it’s Ricks in Taj Mansingh or Tapas Lounge Bar in Jaypee Hotel in Delhi — everybody loves a full house where there’s free-flowing booze during the race and some more after the event — to celebrate or drown their sorrows, as the case may be.

Even smaller restaurants and bars are getting into this — Pebble Street in Delhi boasts of a F1 club and so does Sidewok in Mumbai. Increasingly, watering holes see these races as money spinners and also as a good ground for promotional activities.

It was a demanding race at the end of an intense season, but Juan Pablo Montoya proved himself the master of Interlagos with a convincing drive to victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix. So with Schumacher losing, the stage is all set for the next season, and a whole lot of Indian companies are lining up for the race.

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