F1’s marketing strategy

The suspense and surprise are handled as if it were a Hitchcock thriller,’ writes one critic from Argentina about the wildly popular sport that 60 million fans can’t seem to get enough of. 

With the fastest cars in the world and their respective drivers chasing Championship glory, Formula 1 has always been a high-octane sport. From the F1 race engineer sitting at the pit wall communicating between the driver and the engineering team to the pit crew watching the race unfold from the edge of their seats, both Formula 1 and Netflix were counting on leveraging this built-in adrenaline rush when they first aired Drive to Survive (DTS) on the streaming platform to a predominantly U.S. audience on 8th March 2019.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive poster | Image credit: IMDB

But much like the sport it depicts, the docuseries was initially met with some mixed reactions from the Formula 1 community. While some fans felt that the series sensationalised the sport without giving a true representation of F1, others praised it for its authentic storytelling and even called it the series that ‘remade’ Formula 1 racing.

Regardless of the reactions, the European sport that was now targeting an American audience, did some incredible numbers during its first weekend with 28.01 million viewing hours in total. Its success made it one of Netflix’s most successful original series, opening up some opportunities for branded content that F1 could capitalise on.

With Drive to Survive already in its 6th season, one thing seems to be clear: even fans who haven’t watched a single F1 race were hooked as soon as the drivers made their way from the grid. Formula 1 has generally been a closed community and the docuseries gave unprecedented access to everyone, from the drivers and owners to the team principals who are at the centre of the sport baring their passion on air for the world to see.

Is Drive to Survive a win for F1’s marketing strategy and branded content?

Yes. DTS ticks all the right boxes in any good content strategy, making it a prime example of not just branded content but branded content done right—and that speaks to the success of F1’s marketing strategy.

First, your content needs to have a clear objective. DTS drives awareness of the F1 brand while simultaneously reaching new audiences. While they’ve already got die-hard fans from around the world who mark their calendars for the next race, DTS focuses on building a narrative that appeals to non-die-hard fans, adding to their already impressive fanbase.

For DTS to make the impact Formula 1 needed, they needed a strong platform with a global reach. Enter Netflix. Both had something to gain and ended with a win-win strategy where F1 got more fans hooked on the sport and Netflix got more subscriptions.

DTS also brought in actual results with unprecedented awareness about Formula 1 in the United States—an important milestone for Liberty Media after it bought F1 in 2017 for $4.4 billion.

So how exactly did DTS use its content to create one of Netflix’s most successful original series?

The success of Drive to Survive

If you’re a Formula 1 fan, you may have your own opinions of each season. While some agree that season 1 raced to the finish line with flying colours, others argue that season 5 was nothing but a long press release, but one thing that everyone can agree on is that every season has gone beyond the straight-forward racing action which is already available on most sporting channels.

DTS wanted to highlight certain narratives that take place behind the scenes of what happens on track like the tension between teammates, team rivalries, and even the changing nature of seats for each F1 team. There’s no question that the highs and lows splattered across each season create an intriguing storyline that draws in views.

Even though fans were sitting glued to their TVs at an F1 watch party or were lucky enough to watch the race live from the stands, there was always a bit of a disconnect between them and what was happening on the tracks and the people working behind the scenes to bring it all to life. DTS fixed this by giving an inside look and humanising the drivers with exclusive looks into their backgrounds, goals, and even the lighter side of the sport.

This was a huge step in the right direction because it’s easy to overlook that these athletes are real people with goals, passions, and emotions outside the track. Plus, with a reputation for being highly technical and detached, Formula 1 needed something new to connect with the audience and that’s what the show was able to achieve.

Screenshot from Formula 1: Drive to Survive | Image Credit: The Ringer

For many fans, the experience of F1 starts from the moment their favourite drivers get into the cars and ends when the winners take the podium. For a brand trying to entice more viewers, this simply wasn’t going to do—especially if they wanted non-F1 fans on their side. This is where the series excelled. It covered different perspectives by narrating stories of various individuals and teams in the sport who were trying to maintain their rankings and their seats. It included race content and off-track footage so that fans had a more in-depth look into what went on in each race and the aftermath.

While the series was able to hit all these right notes, it means nothing if the effort didn’t translate into actual figures.

Key results from the series

With the release of its sixth season, DTS has gained an almost religious following and the numbers speak for themselves.

According to YouGov, Drive to Survive has been viewed by 6.8 million subscribers. They also report that 26% of those viewers have no interest in Formula 1 but still tuned in to watch the sports docuseries on Netflix. Imagine a docuseries so good that even non-fans tune in to watch it. That in and of itself should impress the brass at F1 and Netflix with how the show is being received.

DTS also had an impact on ticket sales in the U.S. with the Austin Grand Prix selling 15% more tickets since the debut of the series, making them add a second U.S. race in Miami to the circuit. In 2020, 77% of F1’s growth was a direct result of attracting younger audiences in the 16-35 age bracket—a figure that Nielsen largely attributes to the Netflix series.

Weekend attendance data for the U.S. Grand Prix post-Liberty Media acquisition | Credit: Formula 1

And let’s not forget sponsorships. The popularity in the U.S. soared, making global giants like Coca-Cola, Google, and Oracle upping their sponsorships.

With all the success that Formula 1 has been enjoying since the series first aired, other sports are also starting to take notice as they look to capitalise on the success of DTS with their own sports docuseries.

DTS and its influence on other sports

Thanks to series like DTS—and F1’s marketing strategy—that focus on strong brand storytelling, a new renaissance has emerged. But let’s not forget that branded entertainment isn’t anything new and all it takes is someone with real vision to make a sizable splash that everyone notices and wants to emulate.

Amazon, for instance, has released a series called All or Nothing which follows NFL teams including the Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and Philadelphia Eagles before Drive to Survive, but the influence of that series was nothing compared to the frenzy that surrounded the F1 docuseries.

Following F1’s success with Drive to Survive, other sporting bodies like the WTA, PGA, and ATP are making their own Netflix docuseries. Break Point, for example, focuses on the world of tennis and while it remains to be seen if the series will get a similar reaction to DTS as the years go by, the audience’s interest in sport-centred programming is undeniable and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

Break Point debuted on Netflix following the success of Formula 1: Drive to Survive | Image credit: IMDB

Lessons from DTS for marketing leaders

Whenever a brand does something that goes viral, everyone wants to dissect it and see exactly how it was done and—more importantly—what they can learn from it. F1’s marketing strategy for DTS is no exception. Here’s a closer look at what marketing and content leaders can bring to their tables, even if they don’t have athletes driving fast cars for a chance to have their names etched alongside the all-time greats.

Avoid being afraid of authentic storytelling

There’s nothing quite like authentic storytelling to get the audience’s hearts pumping. In the case of DTS, they didn’t just focus on the races, it was about the racers and the teams behind each brand whether it’s Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, or Mercedes.

Do this right and you instantly connect with the audience because humanised narratives and relatable content resonate across demographics every time. Whether DTS was watched by fans who wanted to know why Carlos Sainz Jr. refused to leave 10 car lengths at the restart during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone to protect a struggling Charles Leclerc or the reasons Lando Norris wanted to exit from McLaren, when you give the audience an inside look at your brand, they create connections with the entire sport, the racers, and the teams that they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know and appreciate.

Similarly, your storytelling should also make these connections with every aspect of your brand so that your consumers can fully embrace everything that goes into creating your product and how they can relate to it, creating a much more personal and captivating experience.

Form the right strategic partnerships

Ever heard of the African proverb ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’? Well, the same applies here. F1 collaborated with Netflix, a streaming platform that has global reach and has the means to help the sport penetrate audiences that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Strategic partnerships like the one F1 formulated with Netflix can give your brand a significant reach and take your products, services, or experiences to an audience who didn’t know about your brand or didn’t have the information they needed to form an opinion. Once you’ve nailed down a mutually beneficial partnership, you can start thinking about influencing your market penetration and changing audience perceptions.

Make diversification your BFF if you want more fans

In a nutshell, don’t just stick to one thing. Formula 1 already had a cult-like following but that didn’t stop them from thinking of ways to find more fans. Expanding the variety of branded content you offer that targets a range of interests can help connect with a larger audience.

For F1, they went with a docuseries to not just give existing fans an exclusive look into the sport that they worshipped but also give non-F1 fans a reason to get in on the action. Using different content types helps you appeal to different audiences. It helps give them an entry point to what you’re offering and creates a more inclusive community that keeps growing.

Take your audience behind-the-scenes

Curiosity may have killed the cat but when it comes to getting a glimpse of the world, that doesn’t usually make it to the final cut—curiosity is something that every fan and consumer thrives on. Let’s face it, we love the content that the brands we love create, but we also want to know what goes into making the final product. That’s why behind-the-scenes videos, whether it’s about our favourite movie or music video, usually garner a lot of attention.

If you want to rekindle your audience’s interest in your brand and create a feeling of excitement, this approach can do wonders for you. F1 fans love to watch the cars make their way to the track, race their rivals in heart-stopping laps, and finally cross the finish line where a chequered flag is waving above the pit wall. But giving them unprecedented access to what happens before and after creates a fresh allure that just adds to the adrenaline rush. That’s one important lesson that B2B and B2C brands can learn from F1’s marketing strategy. 

Use branded content to race to the finish line

Formula 1 made a bet on curating on-demand content that can be binge-watched in a single day, making it the perfect opportunity to keep existing fanatics of the sport interested and get a whole new wave of fans to join the races.

However, not all brands can get on a streaming platform and give their consumers a look into the makings of their favourite products or services. The goal is to give the audience fresh content and create fresh perspectives and experiences.
Easier said than done, right? Not if you find the right brand marketing strategy to get you off to a roaring start and become one of the first to reach that all-important chequered flag that eludes even the most established brands in the market.