Smirnoff Sponsors Formula One Team in Drive to Make Racing Less Elitist

Forget the yacht, just bring your good spirits

Smirnoff is getting in the driver’s seat with current No. 5 ranked Formula One team Sahara Force India to do away with the velvet rope around this exclusive form of racing, shunning its traditional elitism in favor of reaching more fans.

The booze brand tapped the New York office of iris Worldwide to launch an online content series, #BEYONDTHEGRID, on Smirnoff’s official YouTube channel, featuring a pair of comedic actors as they follow Sahara Force India from country to country for the rest of the 2014 racing season.

“The aim is to shift the perception from the 10 percent who just turn up for the yacht parties in Monaco to the large majority of fans who are there simply to have a good time and watch some great racing,” said Tim Clarke, creative director for iris Worldwide.

The campaign bucks a more traditional marketing approach of increasing exclusivity in order to elevate a brand. “Exclusiveness is never fun,” said Matt Bruhn, Smirnoff’s global brand director. “It’s better when we are all on the dance floor doing our best funky chicken.”

But will the funky chicken fit in at the Formula One ball? For the uninitiated, F1 racing is considered by many to be the finest form of the sport, with a lengthy history, distinct rules for how cars are built and raced, and featuring some of the most highly trained drivers in the world driving the fastest cars. Long enjoyed by the wealthy, Formula One fandom is often represented as all glitz and glam—but Smirnoff saw that this was essentially just the tip of the fan iceberg, below which an engaged but less-visible audience gathered en masse.

“Most people sit in the grandstands, stand on the hills and enjoy the race, so we thought, ‘Let’s hang with them,’” Bruhn said, adding that the “reasonable price” of the brand’s vodka makes it so that “unlike many sponsors of racing, we are well within reach for every house party.”

The Formula One campaign ties in neatly with Smirnoff’s own “exclusively for everybody” campaign, touting its quality versus price.

The main challenge for Smirnoff and Sahara Force India was to disrupt the seriousness of the sport and make it more accessible for the everyman fan, bringing viewers “beyond the grid”—#BeyondTheGrid also happens to be the campaign’s hashtag. To do so, they decided to try comedy, enlisting comedian Brad Wollack of Chelsea Lately and Brit actress Thaila Zucchi, from the TV show Shameless, who came into the project with fairly little knowledge of the Formula One world.

“We wanted to bring together two hosts with different perspectives on the sport, but who were both F1 ‘outsiders,’ relatively speaking,” Clarke said. “We wanted it to be a genuine journey of discovery for them.”

Wollack and Zucchi will showcase a different side of Formula One that is typically ignored by the TV cameras—fans camping out before a face, the pit crew’s antics when they’re not changing tires, awkward interviews and even a race with London cabbies versus one of the team drivers.

“Comedy is very much the Smirnoff lens on F1. Smirnoff is all about including everybody, and F1 is typically presented as being pretty serious and precise, credit to some incredible engineering,” Clarke said. “But we felt the real beauty of the sport is in man and machine coming together and more often than not, it’s when the human element shines through that you get the most engaging moments.  There’s no better way to get people to let their guard down … than to get them laughing.”