Why a Formula E team pivoted from motorsport to marble racing

When one door closes, the old adage goes, another window opens. While many motorsports firms leant into the wonders of e-racing in lockdown, Formula E’s Envision Virgin Racing team had a completely different idea that had some thinking it had lost its marbles.

Early in lockdown, it partnered with YouTube Channel Jelle’s Marble Runs to start a ‘Marbula E’ competition. Each marble represented a real Formula E team. They were raced on real to-scale tracks. As a like-for-like replacement for cancelled races, it proved second-to-none, with the grandstands, crowds, commentary and the broadcast graphics all lifted from the grounded sport.

The low-cost venture has already paid off, Dan Matson, head of marketing, Envision Virgin Racing, told The Drum. He joined the team nine months ago from Derby County Football Club with a mission to help build a “fan-first motorsport brand at the intersection of sport, entertainment and a higher social purpose (the electric vehicle).”

The fuel for that fire is attention, and he’s shown he’s more than happy to embrace unconventional ideas to get it.

"When there’s a lack of racing our biggest threat comes from lost media and broadcast visibility”, particularly the eyes it puts on partners and sponsors. The team’s just had its busiest quarter ever, trying to build a commercial product that could help see it through Covid-19 and beyond. And absurdly, that led them to marble racing.

“We contacted the main players in marble racing, really creative individuals based out of the Netherlands. We pitched the Formula E idea but we really wanted to bring that sense of realism.”

With the format in the bag, Matson‘s biggest challenge was gaining the IP rights for the teams and ensuring that the silly marbles stunt still remains true to the sport it is imitating. So far, the campaign has generated 6 million video views across owned and earned media and raised £3m media value across 2,500 mentions in the press.

Matson said: “Our managing director never thought he would be doing interviews with national print talking about marble racing.”

After the initial flurry of success, the schedule soon encapsulated the full (now-cancelled) race season. Highlights would run on its owned Facebook and YouTube channels, later fed to the media (under embargo of course). This strategy has increased the team‘s digital and social footprint by 50% in just three months.

This reach isn’t just thrown away however. Brand partners are integrated into the track as they would in a real race – they’re seizing back some of that media value that would have otherwise been lost. “There's a need there for lighthearted content at the moment. And we‘ve now got people crying out: when‘s the next race?”

Will demand always be present or is marble racing just one of the silly quirks of the lockdown?

“When we return to racing it will be interesting to see [if the demand remains] but just for our partners it has been great because it's obviously engaging with our core audience.”

So far the activation has cost less than £3,000 – and for the £3m media value, that’s a clear return on investment.

“It goes to show what a little bit of imagination, creativity and an effective execution plan can achieve.”

Matson spoke with The Drum’s executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

You can watch the full schedule of Can-Do content, here.

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