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How do you fix a brand like Nascar? A look at racing series’ drive for new audiences

Simon Kearney, strategy and insights director at Wolff Olins US, weighs in on the Nascar rebrand

At an exciting time in its history, Nascar is embracing diversity and democraticizing its message. But will a rebrand be the solution to driving the auto-racing brand into the future? Simon Kearney, strategy and insights director at Wolff Olins US, weighs in.

“Our roots deepen, our ride continues.” This message greeted Nascar’s roughly 3 million followers as the brand unveiled a new look and partnership, which – as part of a broader effort – aimed to refresh the organization’s look and feel in order to reach new audiences and be seen as moving with the times.

Almost five years later and the relative success of this move still carries with it a big TBD. The sport has embraced diversity, in large part due to the emergence of driver William Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr., a graduate of Nascar’s ‘Drive for Diversity’ program and the first Black Nascar driver in 50 years to win one of the top three touring series. Basketball legend Michael Jordan now also co-owns a racing team, 23XI, opening the sport up to millions of potential new fans and providing a highly lucrative crossover opportunity.

The controversy of change

But change hasn’t come without controversy. Nascar has, in some instances, been painfully slow to move with the times. In 2015, the racing brand passively asked fans not to display the confederate flag at races, which came across as a half-hearted gesture at best. And although officially banned from racetracks as of last year, it would be the same year that Wallace found a noose hanging in the Talladega garage assigned to him. These incidents came to symbolize an organization that’s behind the pace of change.

Calls for change are something sporting associations and brands alike are wrestling with as the balance of power continues to shift away from the organization and towards the individual. Whether that be the NFL’s response to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, The United States Soccer Federation being sued by their own superstars, or Lewis Hamilton’s pioneering work within and beyond Formula One, the message is clear – the current system isn’t working and won’t be tolerated.

This dynamic has major implications for the role of brands and the ways in which a rebranding effort such Nascar’s can serve to modernize and revitalize a business’s fortunes. In the past, brands served as a central hub and gatekeeper, controlling and carefully curating the message it put out into the world. Today’s landscape, however, is both different and difficult to manage.

Crowd control

Brand ownership now sits with the crowd – an audience that carefully watches not just what you say but what you do, and one that is quick to point out any incongruencies. It is an audience that expects to be provided with inspiration and be engaged with, to build upon the foundations you provide them, moving the relationship away from passive communications and toward a much more active and immersive space. While this new dynamic presents challenges, it also creates a number of exciting opportunities to deepen ties, broaden reach and create worlds around a seemingly core or niche offer.

Nascar is moving in the right direction in this respect. Continued commitment to their ‘Drive for Diversity’ program is beginning to bear fruit, and the relaunching of Nascar.com has marked a noteworthy investment in meeting a nascent audience where they are by opening up a suite of digital products and services that provide a glimpse of the sport from multiple angles.

In addition to these promising first steps, the continued rebranding of the sport provides an opportunity for Nascar to continue to evolve in a way that stays true to its roots while suitably reinventing them for contemporary culture. Three areas feel particularly interesting as focal points for these efforts.

Re-imagining the mission. Nascar’s mission statement says: “Nascar is committed to making the sport – on and off the racetrack – look like America. No other issue is more important to Nascar’s success and growth.” Being synonymous with Americana has long been core to both Nascar’s appeal and outreach. The brand has been founded on principles that lean on national pride and a sense of identity. But as what it means to be American shifts, so too must the way in which Nascar brings this sentiment to life.

This moment presents the perfect opportunity to take a look at values and beliefs that are core to the brand experience while reimagining them for the more contemporary context. The ‘Drive for Diversity’ initiative represents the first steps towards a more nuanced articulation of what it means to be American and the sense of pride and passion that feeling still evokes for millions, on and off the track.

Democratizing the message. Similarly, the process of rebranding opens the aperture of brand stewardship wider, creating the chance to engage and entrust a new generation of athletes and fans with spreading the word and deepening the Nascar mission. Beyond the category, the emergence of fan fiction as an outlet for creativity and the emergence of platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo show both the willingness of and power in handing over some creative control to passionate members of the community and letting them take the wheel.

While the world of sports has been a little slower to react to this movement, it’s well known that Nascar fans are deeply passionate and loyal to the sport. Finding the right way to leverage and share this sense of community will be key to reimagining the brand and creating a new class of fans and advocates.

Broadening the brand experience. Finding ways to create value away from the track will be key to creating stronger relevance, resonance and engagement with contemporary fans who are actively seeking out new ways to build deeper, niche ties with their passions. The NBA offers a great case study in creating wrap-around experiences for fans. By making style and ties to streetwear part of the pre-game experience or by embracing the burgeoning NFT, crypto and collectibles market, they have built a world in which fans can engage with the sport and their favorite stars more broadly and more deeply.

This moment in time is both challenging and exciting for Nascar and others faced with similar existential questions. While a rebrand is not a solution in and of itself, it creates the opportunity to reflect on where the organization is, where it wants to go, and how to take the first steps on that journey.

While Nascar has, up to now, built its name on going fast and going alone, building for the future and true longevity may well lie in going together.

Simon Kearney is strategy and insights director at Wolff Olins US.

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport.

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