As McLaren unleashes the latest episode of its popular computer-animated series Tooned, Jessica Davies talks to McLaren and Tooned creators Framestore about their journey into the world of branded content.
Commanding a global TV audience of more than 500 million at the last count, the fiercely competitive Formula 1 (F1) is a giant in the sporting world.
Yet global viewing figures have dropped over the last year, meaning the pressure is on to perform not just on the race track, but in the marketing arena. McLaren, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has set its sights on broadening its audience base and appealing to more women, and with F1 rivals Ferrari and Red Bull already well known for generating passion and entertainment, McLaren is keen to make its mark and meet the high demand for digital content expected by the younger demographics.
It began this journey last year, teaming up with London-based special effects company Framestore, whose recent movie successes include the entirely 3G-enabled sci-fi thriller Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Framestore created a computer-animated series called Tooned, featuring the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 racing team, set in and around the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) where its cars are designed and tested.
The first series, which ran on Sky, featured the real voices of drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button playing their own characters. McLaren’s group brand director John Allert says: “The idea came from a realisation that we needed to reach out to a new generation of fans, and to do so we needed to better emotionalise our brand in a way that was still relevant to who we are, because ultimately we are a high-tech, high-performance F1 racing team.”
Tooned has given the McLaren brand a more approachable, fresh, dynamic face, opening it to alternative channels to classic F1 broadcast, a key part of tapping into younger audiences who consume media across multiple digital channels.
This approach is particularly important for F1’s image in developing markets, where the sport is often regarded as “elitist” and “too premium” for local market consumption habits, according to Allert. “It also created a way to help our sponsor partners reach new demographics both in the UK and internationally,” he adds.
This has already resulted in a spin-off show for sponsor partner engine oil brand Mobil 1 and McLaren is now eyeing further international spin-offs. What had begun as an experiment for both, running on Sky alone, soon escalated as the series spread like wildfire online after it was “ripped” and posted on YouTube, generating a further 2m views.
It went on to sell more than 20,000 DVD box sets and grew a one million-strong social media following. Yet this year McLaren and Framestore have taken the series to a new level. Both companies learned much from the trial, and McLaren has now taken a more controlled approach to the second series’ distribution, managing its web seeding carefully and mining from its social media followings to help shape future plot lines and character appearances.
Each episode of the series, currently running on Sky ahead of F1 fixtures, follows a world champion in chronological order starting from Bruce McLaren in the 60s through to James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna and present-day drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez.
Set at night in the MTC, the episodes feature a dry old professor attempting to give a lecture on McLaren to celebrate its 50th year. He is interrupted by a mechanic who interjects to reveal the “real story” of what happened with each of the drivers and the series drops into flashback mode.
The James Hunt episode, which aired ahead of the arrival of the film Rush in UK cinemas this month, raised some particular creative challenges for the Framestore team. Simon Whalley, Framestore’s executive producer, says: “The tricky thing with James Hunt is that he is known for being a notorious womaniser, which is hard to feed into a family-friendly cartoon. So we modelled his character on James Bond, which worked perfectly and meant we could be really funny with it.”
Framestore created a bespoke cartoon strip exclusively for The Drum which depicts one of the scenes in the show – a pastiche of the famous laser scene in the Bond film Goldfinger. In the show Hunt’s voice is recorded by his own son Tom Hunt, which created invaluable research for the Framestore team. “James’ son Tom looks and sounds a lot like him.
When he did his voice record he referenced real examples of things that happened during the races which we fed back into the show. He told us that once the legendary F1 commentator Murray Walker asked him for a comment when he came in for a pit stop during a race – to which James replied ‘not now old boy, there’s a race going on’. “That’s now a great moment in the episode because it’s not only very James Hunt-like but James Bond-like too,” says Whalley.
The show has been warmly received by drivers and their families, with each world champion’s voice recorded by either themselves or a close family member. Bruno Senna, who plays the voice of his uncle, has a Twitter following of more than 600,000, making him and the other drivers a valuable part of the social media community surrounding Tooned.
Yet McLaren is wise to the fact that it is not video alone that creates a full-bodied, successful branded content strategy. Allert believes branded content is a misunderstood term that is endlessly bandied around by those who think they are being creative, when in fact all they are creating is a TV ad. He describes its true meaning as “people-shaping your brand through touch points that will resonate with the people you want to target”.
That can be anything from an event, to a retail partnership, service or video – but not the latter in isolation, he says. “I get thoroughly depressed by the endless misuse of the term branded content. It shows a basic misunderstanding of what the opportunities are.” He believes the day of reckoning is coming for those who have played a little too fast and loose with their businesses’ budgets.
“The controllers of the purse strings will run out of patience with people who can’t demonstrate robust ROIs around digital activity and particularly around branded content, and I think people are only months away from being found out from over indulging in things that don’t really work,” he adds.
The Tooned world is evolving fast with longform versions, behind-the-scenes videos, and documentaries interviewing real experts in the sport all being rolled out. Framestore has developed a prototype racing game, which could either be sponsored by a McLaren partner or monetised via in-app purchases.
Meanwhile further spin-offs are in the pipeline, and McLaren is eyeing a push into physical toys and other merchandise. McLaren is seeing its target demographics – dads, kids and females – “swell” along with a “huge response” from people who speak English as a second language, as a result of Tooned, according to Allert.
“We are not doing it as a creative indulgence, we are doing it as a relevant business tool. Diversifying into areas like gaming and merchandising is commercially attractive and fits our strategy to broaden our audience.
“Not all our target audience will play mobile games, have access to YouTube or want to buy a T-shirt. But if we can make the Tooned touch points as broad as possible and monetise them we can only broaden our audience further and that underscores the viability of the business model,” he says.
Framestore too has ambitions for the franchise. Whalley adds: “Tooned is essentially an advert. Yet this is where the lines between advertising, marketing and content are completely blurring, which is exciting. What started as one thing can now grow to be much bigger. We have aspirations to make a feature film.”