SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Marketingsponsorship

NASCAR execs take lead in new marketing agency, vow no conflict

The founders of newly launched marketing agency Brand Sense insist their business has little to do with motorsports, but convincing the rest of the world won't be easy.

That's because two NASCAR executives, Brian France and George Pyne, are major investors in the New York-based venture. Another investor, Mark Johnson, has worked on NASCAR ad campaigns and will serve as Brand Sense's president.

In all, France, NASCAR's senior vice president, says there are six or seven financial backers of the agency. He declined comment on who the other investors are.

The company's first client is Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who's also working on a possible New York track with International Speedway Corp., the France family-led publicly traded motorsports company. The Frances also run sanctioning body NASCAR.

France confirmed that Dodge, which re-enters NASCAR next season with Ray Evernham's new race teams, is in discussions with Brand Sense.

So, is Brand Sense in effect competing with the very agencies and companies that sanctioning body NASCAR — and, in effect, France and Pyne — counts as clients?

"It's totally unrelated to motorsports," France said. "That's not what Brand Sense is about. The whole idea is to take the concepts and strategies of marketing and licensing that we've learned at NASCAR and put them into effect in the corporate world."

France and Johnson concede the company may do some race-related work, but they say it will be minimal.

"Look at the Trump brand," France said. "At least 99 percent of his activities are unrelated to NASCAR. When you talk about branding there, you're talking about things like residential developments, resorts and things that mostly involve real estate."

Sports marketers and other industry experts are already leery of potential conflicts involving Brand Sense, NASCAR, International Speedway Corp. and sponsors.

"Do I know of any other situation where principals in a governing body that has responsibility to team owners and facility owners has created a business that could siphon off part of that business? The answer is no," said Dean Bonham, principal at Denver-based sports agency The Bonham Group.

Marketers within stock car racing privately express reservations but refuse public comment. Said one, who demanded anonymity: "It's the unspoken 800-pound gorilla out on the table. The only positive is the fact that maybe the kingpins will realize how tough our business is."

France said motorsports agencies shouldn't feel threatened. Brand Sense will emphasize licensing strategies that tap into overall business plans. It won't dabble in hats and T-shirts, sponsorships or corporate hospitality.

The principals agree that the agency will focus on a small group of clients. No revenue estimates are available, and France declined comment on how far off profitability is. Brand Sense has three employees now and plans to add five more within a year. "We want to have a few marquee clients and do a great job for them," Johnson said.

CART HEADS FOR ARCADE: Midway Games Inc. has introduced CART Fury, bringing the open-wheel racing series to video arcades nationwide. The game includes tips from former CART champ Danny Sullivan and allows players to compete with stars such as Indy 500 champ Juan Montoya.

"This is a great way for us to reach a younger audience," said CART spokesman Ron Richards. "This is our first arcade game, and we think it is another way to help grow the sport."

Erik Spanberg can be reached at espanberg@bizjournals.com.

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