Austin, Texas, had nothing in common with places like Valencia, Spain, or Sakir, Bahrain—at least until this past weekend, when the city played host to the 2012 Formula 1 races. It was the first time in five years that the motorsport returned to the U.S. It was also a setup for an unusual marketing gambit.
Joining the rarefied auto nameplates like Ferrari and Lotus was Nissan’s Infiniti brand, which signed on as a co-sponsor of Red Bull Racing’s car RB8 last year. With the race finally back on U.S. soil, Infiniti execs will soon be able to see if they got their money’s worth.
“It’s our first chance to do an activation in the U.S., and we’re excited,” Infiniti’s marketing director Keith St. Clair told Adweek just before race day. “Now we’ll get to see what U.S. fans really think.”
Infiniti’s co-sponsorship of driver Sebastian Vettel’s car is a bigger deal than it might seem. Formula 1 has long been the swank, international counterpart to America’s Nascar races. Its U.S. following is modest while the cost to slap your brand name on a car is anything but. Both BMW and Honda pulled out of past deals, as did Toyota—after deciding that a reported $400 million in annual sponsorship costs just wasn’t getting enough marketing mileage.
St. Clair conceded that F1’s domestic fan base is “very small,” and while Infiniti will not reveal what it’s spending on the deal, the brand is likely saving money by being a secondary partner. While Red Bull’s logo is plastered all over the car, Infiniti’s name appears only on the barge boards and rear wing.
Whatever trade-off that might represent, St. Clair maintained that “our name is on the metal, and that can mean the difference.”
Infiniti’s name was also on its Austin pavilion, inside of which visitors got to slip into two G series convertibles and “race” them on a virtual course projected ahead of them.
Another component of Infiniti’s sponsorship was a video shot in June featuring Vettel laying rubber with an Infiniti IPL G Coupe. St. Clair insisted that any association with F1 racing “is prestigious. The fan base maps directly with our target. We and our competitors are all speaking to the same target audience.”
Or hoping to. According to Paul Eisenstein, publisher of auto website The Detroit Bureau, Infiniti’s romp with racing’s rich kids has more to do with trying to capture the attention of the luxury buyer rather than rolling with the ones it already has. “There’s no question that Infiniti’s gotten involved in this to try to elevate their brand perception,” he said. “From the beginning, they have not been able to position themselves as a serious luxury player, and there’s clearly a question whether F1 will do anything for them.”
Still, Eisenstein lauds Infiniti’s “clever approach” of getting into the sponsorship game at a more budget-friendly level. And St. Clair added that the brand has already seen some payoff. “In the markets we’ve had races in,” he said, “we’ve seen growth in brand opinion and brand awareness.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether those benefits will now manifest in the U.S. market. Some races are longer than others.