Analysis: Looking at Ecclestone’s Campaign Asia interview

A fascinating questions and answers session with Bernie Ecclestone was published by Campaign Asia a few days ago on their website, which received an overwhelming response on F1 media websites and by fans on social media. In it, Ecclestone made a lot of interesting comments, which I will look at further down this piece.

Some said that this is the usual Ecclestone, making controversial comments for the sake of gaining a few headlines. I disagree. This was not an interview with your usual Formula 1 journalist. As far as I can tell, Campaign Asia is an upmarket website, who have no agenda. They’re not looking to spin this story. They did not pull one or two lines out of the Q&A for a sensationalist headline. They published the entire Q&A for their readers to read, which does not happen very often, and I applaud them for that. One link between them and AUTOSPORT is that they are both owned by Haymarket, but I doubt that AUTOSPORT’s editorial stance affects Campaign Asia and vice versa.

The Q&A starts with Atifa Silk asking Ecclestone what the Formula One brand stands for. Which is a valid question. Most big brands have a roadmap of where they want to be in five years from now. Microsoft. Facebook. Two examples of brands that have roadmaps. Brands like the Premier League too will have roadmaps on how to exploit growth in certain regions (in fact, the Ecclestone interview alludes to this later, but doesn’t explain how growth is going to happen). Here is Formula E’s technical roadmap. Defining a roadmap is a key part of telling people what your brand is all about.

This was Ecclestone’s response to the branding question: “That’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose it is a major sport and most sports are in the entertainment business. Sometimes we tend to lose track of the entertainment and get caught up a bit more on the technical aspect of Formula 1, which I’m not happy about. We are very technical and we need to stay that way but I’d rather see a bit more effort on the entertainment.” Ecclestone further down the piece claims that it is “obvious” what Formula 1 does. Is it? Imagine trying to persuade a new fan to watch Formula 1, and you tell them that’s it is all obvious. That’s not a good sales pitch. What Ecclestone does not realise is that, the more indecisive he is, and the more negativity that emerges, that tarnishes the brand and removes a little bit of value from the brand. His brand, let us not forget.

Ecclestone does rightly say that there is increased competition nowadays as people have more choice than 20 or 30 years ago. His next point is about Ferrari, noting that “they’re not winning as much, and you can see that their popularity has dropped off.” With that in mind, why do they still get financial privileges in comparison to other teams? If you want to make Formula 1 a more viable proposition for teams wanting to join, the $90 million that is given to Ferrari needs to instead be re-distributed equally to every team. Ecclestone says that for teams to survive, they should not spend as much. That is all well and good, but Gerard Lopez was bang on the money with his comments in the official FIA press conference back in USA, noting “I kinda guess what [Caterham and Marussia] must have paid for the engine this year and what they have paid for developing around that engine and I guarantee that in the budgets that they have, there was not a whole lot left – so it’s not like they had a choice.” It feels like that Ecclestone believes that money grows on trees. It doesn’t. You only need to look around to see that some teams are struggling to attract sponsors.

Rolex: A wonderful brand I'm sure, but what percentage of Formula 1's audience is going to interact with the brand in the next seven days?
Rolex: A wonderful brand I’m sure, but what percentage of Formula 1’s audience is going to interact with the brand in the next seven days?

This brings me onto a point further down the article about Rolex and UBS, in that young kids can’t afford them. But I think the Rolex and UBS point is interesting in a different context. Are back end teams struggling to attract sponsors because Formula 1 presents itself as an elitist sport on screen? When I watch Formula 1, I don’t see worldwide sponsors that I can openly engage in, I see sponsors that only the rich and famous can engage in. Having a brand, such as McDonald’s or Nike to use two examples, alongside Rolex and UBS would look completely out of place. Does having only four or five sponsors presented on the World Feed at every race have a detrimental effect to those teams at the back of the field? Or does it not matter? I don’t know, but think it is an interesting point. Ecclestone does make the point about Formula 1 attracting an upmarket audience, which is a valid statement considering the sponsors. I’m not suggesting that Formula 1 should go towards a ‘chavvy’ audience or anything of the sort, but just that the choice of sponsors may make Formula 1 appear inaccessible, to some. Ecclestone himself in the interview with Campaign Asia says that the teams at the tale end require at least 70% to 80% of their budget to be from sponsors. If you fail to attract sponsors, you’re going to struggle.

Ecclestone says that they can’t “make Formula One more accessible to people”. I’m afraid I disagree: all races free-to-air worldwide where pay-TV growth has failed to take off, YouTube content (it doesn’t need to be World Feed, just some unique content produced by FOM) and the such like. In the UK, free-to-air television is still king. FOM are only starting to exploit social media with Twitter, but even so, you can argue that development is several years later than it really should have been. That probably does not matter that much, given that Ecclestone expresses no interest in tweeting.

“I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is. I tried to find out but in any case I’m too old-fashioned. I couldn’t see any value in it. And, I don’t know what the so-called ‘young generation’; of today really wants. What is it? You ask a 15 or 16-year-old kid, ‘What do you want?’; and they don’t know. The challenge is getting the audience in the first place”, Ecclestone said in the piece. Ecclestone is probably one of the few old generation leaders who does not have Twitter. Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin and Sepp Blatter all do. One reason that start-up companies are so successful in this generation is because of social media. Get a good following, with a bit of funding, and all of a sudden you can become the next big thing. There is a lot of possibilities with social media, which hopefully Formula E will be exploiting.

The two groups that Ecclestone alienated in the interview, women and young men (age 34 or under), accounted for 49 percent of the UK audience for the Russian Grand Prix according to overnight viewing figures, so half of his fan base. The main conclusion I sadly get from this piece is that Ecclestone is not interested in diversifying his audience. Ecclestone appears to be happy with what he have, but does not have the urge to change his audience, or to bring younger people into Formula 1. An ageing audience is not an attractive audience. An unattractive audience will not attract new, trendy sponsors. People associate Rolex and UBS with middle-aged businessman. The piece proves to me that Formula 1 needs new leadership. Not just Ecclestone, but the ‘yes men’ associated with Ecclestone. Someone to drive Formula 1 forward. Passion. Energy. Excitement. New media. Is Ecclestone really the person to drive Formula 1 forward, and continue to make it a global phenomenon?

I don’t think so.

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12 thoughts on “Analysis: Looking at Ecclestone’s Campaign Asia interview

  1. It worries me that he is still the one calling the shots to be honest. At Silverstone last year I would say that the demographic you quote made up roughly the same percentage of the attendees. I am in that category too being a 31 year old male. The sport I love needs to change – not necessarily on track but next to it. McDonald’s will never sponsor an F1 team while tobacco money in the form of Ferrari’s subliminal advertising and under hand payments are happening. Once that is gone then it might happen. The sport’s leaders should be doing all they can to build a portfolio of worldwide mega brands like them regardless of their target market. They should aim to tick as many boxes as possible. At the end of the day though, I don’t watch it because of any sponsor…

  2. What F1 as a brand stands for is pretty easy: Open-wheel motor racing at the highest level – The fastest cars, the best drivers, iconic manufacturers & privateers racing at exotic and iconic locations all over the world.

    I have to admit, Ecclestone’s “We have to charge for everything” attitude sadly isn’t what modern consumers want. Everything these days, although having a paid aspect, typically has a free element towards it. For example, I would not expect FOM to start streaming live races for free (not even just the world feed, even the WEC don’t do that). However the videos on the F1 App are certainly of the freebie quality, and would be perfect for YouTube. Yes FOM only charge a tenner for the app per year, which is peanuts nowadays, but psychologically a lot of users would still be put off by that.

    Personally I do have more respect for the brands that F1 sponsor or has sponsored: Tag Heuer, Rolex, LG, UBS etc. and I probably would have loyalty towards them because they sponsor F1, because I love F1.

    I don’t see why F1 itself can’t be sponsored by high end brands, and the teams get sponsored by low end brands… So you see Rolex around the circuit, but Nike on the cars or something like that.

    I don’t think FOM themselves as a company are a bunch of technological luddites or anything like that. The FOM guys I follow on twitter aren’t OAPs and certainly are experts in their field. I just feel Ecclestone is the one restricting innovation because of his fear that putting stuff on digital media etc. for free will ultimately destroy all of their income, which IMO won’t happen. If done rightly, i’m sure it will boost it. I know he got burnt by F1Digital, but that’s 12 years old at least now, he has to move on.

    • I just thought I’d add this quote from Ecclesotne in the article which you missed: “You’re right that we should use social media to promote Formula One. I just don’t know how.” The 1st part shows that Ecclestone is aware that social media can have benifits. To the 2nd part i’d just like to say to him: “That’s fine if you personally don’t know how, but you have loads of people within FOM that do if you’d just let them”. Look at the tweets from @f1timingapp and @appsupportteam. They all directly interact with fans, and the tweets from @f1 recently have immediatly turned the majority of the replies from anti-F1 tweets to pro-F1 ones, which is good. I just wish Ecclestone would trust in his colleagues more.

  3. Ecclestone’s problem is his arrogant complacency; he’s been successfully milking the sport for so much money for so long that he cannot see changes occurring under his nose. He’s alright Jack, so why isn’t everybody else?

    Were he grooming some potential successors, as good managers do, they would be able to inject new ideas & fresh thinking to approach the obvious problems confronting F1.
    But he delegates no power, jealously keeping it all to himself, reveling in his self-anointed status as “F1 Supremo”, playing the self-interested teams against each other to hold onto his exalted position, at the expense of a once-great sport.

    F1 is losing its existing audience, & isn’t even trying to attract new segments of the public.
    Its only hope is via free-to-air TV & proper use of social media, but a combination of greed & incomprehension at the top mean that neither is being exploited.
    Surely the sponsors must be aware that they’re blowing ever-bigger ad budgets on an ever-shrinking audience.
    Time for SOMEONE in F1 to do more than re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

  4. Teams are struggling to attract sponsors, due to the low AVE sponsors are getting due to the sport largely being hidden behind pay walls.

  5. The week after Bernie announced f1 wad noting going to be shown on BBC I closed my santandar bank account. Not only do I see less f1 now I go out of my way to avoid sponsor of f1 goods.

    Well done Bernie

  6. I was interested to read Bernie’s preferred demographic, well off 70 year old men. As I meet only one of these criteria (and it’s not the well off bit!) I think I might follow Mark Webber and take much more interest in sports car racing in future where I’m sure I’ll find a warmer welcome. How many 70 year old men drink Red Bull one wonders?

  7. It also doesn’t help that organisations such as the EU are trying their best to get rid of sponsorship from alcohol companies in F1. Obviously Martini are title sponsors for Williams, Force India’s owner owns/owned a number of alcohol companies that sponsor/ed FI, McLaren have 1 or 2, and possibly others that I have not mentioned.

    Where are teams/drivers supposed to get sponsors from if the EU etc keep saying its wrong for one reason or another? F1 cannot afford another sponsorship palaver like what happened with the tobacco companies.

    Personally, I am not swayed by marketing – I would never own/buy a product because it is in F1, or with my favourite team or driver, I would buy it because I enjoy it or it fit in with my life in the best way etc. I know the EU and others argue about being sponsored by drink companies sends out the wrong message RE drink driving, but IMO, I think they are being way over the top RE this.

    I personally think alcohol sponsorship of teams/drivers is not going to make the difference whether someone is going to drink drive or not, and if someone decides to partake in that activity, it is their choice and they are aware of the consequences in the vast majority of situations, so blaming sponsorship in sports such as F1 seems like the wrong way of tackling the problem (again IMO).

  8. I agree, davidD, but sadly the EU is a bureaucratic dictatorship, which has assumed far too much control over everyday life in Europe; sort of like the FIA’s self-serving stranglehold on motor sport worldwide. The EU targets easy prey, like tobacco and now alcohol, citing a phony moralistic philosophy as well as more justifiable health concerns.

    In France, motoring magazines publishing historic photographs of racing cars from the era of tobacco sponsorship have to airbrush out the offensive logos. Makers of scale models of those same cars can not decorate the miniatures with their historically correct markings. Alcohol advertising on model commercial vehicles was banned long ago.

    The (corrupt) Nanny State presumes to protect us from the perceived evils of the world, in order to justify its own existence & make work for its army of bureaucrats.

    Given this scrutiny, F1 needs to attract mainstream advertisers who are above EU reproach, companies such as Coca Cola, McDonalds, Kelloggs, Samsung, Apple etc, but they (like most successful companies today) focus on the Youth Market.
    Thanks to Ecclestone’s short-sighted unimaginative policies, F1’s demographic is most definitely not Youth oriented.

    Did you notice the Williams team’s different logos in alcohol-free Abu Dhabi?
    No Martini name, and no distinctive red centre line on the striping, neither on the cars nor on any of the team apparel.
    What a stupid waste of money for a racing team to have to absorb, but it may well be a sign of things to come.

  9. Ian – I did notice Williams’ logo was different, but took me a while to notice what was different about it. Then I remembered the race was in Abu Dhabi and it clicked. Did Merc celebrate with champagne after Lewis’ win – the broadcasters seemed to think so, but how could they have done so considering the podium ceremony has rose water? (if my memory is correct)

    Youth – I am in a sadly increasing minority demographic – a 21-year old F1 fan (yes we do exist!) Although I think F1 popularity is slowly increasing (perhaps helped by the fact us Brits have had 3 drivers championships, via 2 drivers, in the last 7 years), I still feel in a minority, so much so that it almost feels a dirty word if mentioning that I am a fan to people I do not know (who all seem to like stupid football for some daft reason). This needs to change, and it is no one reason why viewership is declining, we all know what they are, and they need fixing! Mr Ecclestone, as much good for the sport he has done in the past overall, needs to go and be replaced by someone who knows what they are doing in ths modern technological age, not that Bernie would willingly do this.

    RE sponsorship from McDonalds, Coca Cola etc – can you imagine the uproar from the stupid EU if this happened – can’t have unhealthy brands in motorsport etc etc. If the EU had their way, they would find as many reasons as possible to ban any sponsors that don’t fit in with their agenda (whatever that is).

    Here’s a thought – if us youth get in on this F1 thingy, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google can start (or increase in terms of MS) sponsoring F1, like BlackBerry do with Mercedes, they could sponsor rival teams. This would surely bring fresh sponsorship deals and rivalry in F1 and help the sport generally.

    • davidD, VERY glad to hear that you’re with us, even at such a tender (!) age … humour aside, F1 is such a compelling, fascinating sport that it’s a real shame it’s not being promoted properly by the hidebound blinkered fossils running it, who care only for its profits.

      As for the FastFood sponsorship, the ever-greedy EU bureaucracy loves companies like McDonalds (as do legislators in the USA) because they promise money & employment.
      Politicians get the money, the employment goes to unskilled workers at sub-minimum wage, because they’re all part-timers.
      F1 teams have been wooing such companies for years without success, whereas NASCAR grids are crammed with cars dressed as Cokes, BigMacs & Corn Flakes. Even Bud Lights.
      Thus far the only “unhealthy” brands on F1 grids are energy drinks like Red Bull, whose caffeine-&-sugar-loaded products were illegal in many European countries just a few years ago. Amazing what money can buy.

      But the main impediment to any multinationals taking on F1 sponsorship is the falling TV audience, thanks to FOM/CVC’s decision to place F1 on Pay TV.
      As noted on David’s excellent broadcasting blog, the climax of Abu Dhabi drew about 6 million viewers on BBC, versus just over half a million on SKY.
      With those figures, no advertiser in their right mind would join Ecclestone’s exclusive F1 party, because there’s nobody there but some rich old men.

      Finally, let me say that you’re not alone, in your enthusiasm for F1.
      In the UK, there are groups which meet at select pubs to watch races on big screen telly, so maybe you can hook up that way with some kindred souls.
      If you have a favourite local, see if they’ll show the races & see if you can organise groups to attend. It’s good business for a pub, and a lot of fun for F1 fans as well.

      Cheers
      Ian

  10. It really shocks me how those high up don’t (appear to) get the long term implications of pay TV – yes, they’ll get more money from SKY etc, but as viewing figures decrease, sponsorship possibilities for teams, drivers AND the sport itself decrease, and in a world where these are struggling for sponsorship due to the aftermath of the economic crisis a few years ago, this compounds an already worsening issue!

    Tender age – believe me, a voluntary role of mine involves interacting with teenagers, and well, even that makes ME feel old at times!

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