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Volume 21 No. 1
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Change lets sponsors cut to the Chase

Last December, executives with the Chicago-based consultancy Wunderman sat down to write a promotional plan for client AARP should its driver, Jeff Gordon, qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

In years past, the Chase plan would remain on a shelf until late July or August when the Chase drivers would be determined. But this year, Wunderman pulled the plan out in May after Gordon won a race, which automatically qualified him for NASCAR’s new, 16-driver Chase. The win gave AARP a two-month head start in planning food drives and other promotional activities during the Chase, which begins Sept. 14.

“We were able to start thinking about [the AARP Drive to End Hunger Platform] with more confidence than ever before,” said Dan Richlen, Wunderman’s senior vice president of group accounts. “It’s been a big help.”

AARP’s ability to make its promotional plans earlier than in years past was one of the things NASCAR hoped would happen when it overhauled its Chase format before the 2014 season and created a system in which drivers who win “regular-season” races qualify for the “postseason.” By giving marketers more lead time to develop promotions, it hoped there would be more marketing around the Chase and the additional marketing would increase awareness of it.

So far, the results are mixed.

With less than a month to go before the Chase, 12 drivers had won races and locked a spot in the postseason. Four of those drivers’ primary sponsors said the change had helped promotional plans (Shell-Pennzoil, AARP, Miller Lite and FedEx), four said it hadn’t affected planning (Budweiser, Lowe’s, M&M’s, National Guard) and three sponsors are new to the Chase (Haas Automation, Smithfield and JTG Daugherty Racing’s Clorox, Kingsford, Scott and others).

Representatives with Roush Fenway Racing, which works with Fastenal, didn’t return calls for comment.

Miller Lite, which sponsors the No. 2 car driven by Brad Keselowski, adjusted its marketing plan for this season after he won a race in April. The brand planned to roll out a series of videos this summer that featured Keselowski answering fan questions as “Bartender Brad,” a seasoned barkeep with feedback on everything from his favorite celebrity couple to how long to shake shaving cream before using it. But after Keselowski qualified for the Chase, it postponed the release and plans to launch the series during the week of the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“With this new format, we know there will be additional engagement from avid and casual fans,” said Adam Dettman, MillerCoors director of sports and entertainment marketing. “Knowing the attention will be there in a major market like Chicago and knowing the league [NASCAR] will be there with its resources, it’s a great platform to launch our content and amplify awareness of it.”

Shell-Pennzoil, which sponsors the No. 22 driven by Joey Logano, began planning its Chase promotions six weeks earlier than it has in previous years. The company plans to have digital advertising and online marketing that highlight Logano’s presence in the Chase.

Shell will do about the same amount of promotions as it’s done in years past because the budget will be the same, said Heidi Massey-Bong, Shell’s director of NASCAR. She hopes the company will be able to do more promotions next year during the Chase now that NASCAR has shifted to a format where race winners qualify.

“I would hope we would activate stronger,” Massey-Bong said. “From a retail perspective next year, we will be promoting motorsports, stronger, bigger and better.”

While those companies have seen benefits from being able to make plans earlier, a host of marketers said the new format hasn’t changed their plans and shouldn’t change how companies approach the Chase.

Team Epic Principal Dave Grant said that he advises all of the firm’s clients to make annual marketing plans that are “performance proof” and not determined by results on the track. The agency then works with clients such as FedEx, the sponsor of the No. 11 car driven by Denny Hamlin, to develop supplemental plans that can be used if there is success on the track.

“The change — win and you’re in — doesn’t impact us,” Grant said. “Does it help partners know a little earlier they’re in the Chase? Sure, but we don’t think preparing plans dependent on success is a smart move for anyone.”