SBD/December 4, 2013/Events and Attractions

Motorsports Marketing Forum: Jimmie Johnson Reflects On The Early Days Of His Brand

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Johnson says while he's learned a lot about branding, owning a team isn't for him
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson at the ’13 NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum said that racing early in his career on a smaller budget ended up helping him land the No. 48 car with Hendrick Motorsports and build his brand into what it is today. While off-road racing for Chevrolet early in his career, Johnson, because of limited budgets, was forced to build a brand on his own. “I was a little bit frustrated at the time because I thought Chevrolet had this magical budget and that they could write a big check and place me with a race team and make things happen,” he said. “But that’s not the way things work. But they could help introduce me to people. ... (Chevy) would put me in front of sponsors and team owners and drivers and then kind of let me be.” Johnson said it took him “a minute to realize the opportunity I was given and what they were really setting me up for.” Through his various meetings with sponsors, Johnson would send personalized letters to each one to set up his brand. “Once that light turned on for me, I tried to take advantage of it,” he said. “It really did more for me than I ever realized because I was expecting this check to be written and placement with a race team.” Johnson said the “perfect storm” came together because of his previous work with sponsors and potential owners. “I didn’t realize that Jeff Gordon knew who I was, or Rick Hendrick. There was enough groundwork laid through all these years of events and networking … it was very easy for Rick and Jeff to make their decision.” Johnson said for a time he was concentrated on creating a “Jimmie Johnson brand,” but now he is “just focused on doing what feels right and letting that lead the branding.” Johnson: “The toughest thing for me is to sit down in a meeting and tell them what my brand is. I don’t know what it is. It’s so hard to drive that and start a conversation about what avenues you’re going to pursue. The brand is important, but the brand to me that’s most important is hoisting those trophies.”

FUTURE OWNER? Several Sprint Cup drivers, including Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, have owned teams in one of NASCAR’s national series, but Johnson does not see that in the cards, at least in the immediate future. “I know Tony grew up with a dream of being a car owner; I never had that dream,” Johnson said. “There have been opportunities along the way but I’ve just not been that interested. ... It’s just not for me.”

SELECTIVE SPONSORS: Being a six-time Sprint Cup champion, Johnson can be selective about his sponsorships, and it is no coincidence that some of his partnerships align with his personality and lifestyle. “I’m in a nice position now,” he said. “In the beginning … I had to just take the opportunities that came along. I remember the Gillette Young Guns, it was a good program for a good company, but some of the commercials I look back on, there’s no way in the world I’d agree on that now.”

QUICK HITS:
* On being loyal to sponsors: “Loyalty is everything to me. It makes me comfortable. I operate and perform better when I have that space. I have that security and that stability at Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe’s.”
* On initial trepidation about using social media: “I just realized that I needed to have thicker skin.”
* On convincing viewers outside the sport that drivers are athletes: “We’re winning them over one at a time. We’ll get McNabb in a car here pretty soon and see what he can do.”

For more from the Motorsports Marketing Forum, please see our On The Ground blog.
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