SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Opinion

A giant calls it quits

The Winston-NASCAR relationship was something we will never see again.

For 33 years, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its top brand were so much a part of stock car racing's Winston Cup Series that it was hard to tell where one started and the other left off. Their business interests were inseparable. RJR provided the money — hundreds of millions of dollars — that made it possible for NASCAR to become the No. 2 spectator sport in the nation. NASCAR provided a fervent fan base that repaid that sponsorship with consumer allegiance to a tobacco company.

The entities paired up at a fortuitous time, when each was facing hardships. Stock car racing was a regional, third-tier sport; RJR was swimming against an anti-tobacco tide. Each needed a boost, and they got it from the partnership that blossomed into three decades-plus of fresh ideas and creative marketing — building upgrades at tracks, show-car promotions, subsidies to lure other sponsors to racing and at-track tobacco sampling efforts. Winston was the first with promotions that are standard today.

R.J. Reynolds' sports role becomes almost nonexistent at the end of this NASCAR season, and its departure leaves more than memories. Its run with the Winston Cup Series says a lot about the value of sports as a marketing platform, about the way both sponsors and properties can benefit from relationships, and about the payoff from aggressive and creative strategies.

In more recent years, legal restrictions on tobacco advertising and sponsorship left Winston in a more restricted role. But despite that, RJR is leaving behind a powerful example of how sports marketing can work for mutual gain.

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