After a few bumpy years marked by declining TV ratings and weakened traction in the vital 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, Nascar regained some footing in 2011. TV viewership rose year-over-year in all three Nascar series, both overall and among the target group of young men. And the sport landed several key sponsorship renewals, including Sprint, UPS and Kraft Foods.
But if Nascar is to continue its assault on the professional team sports occupying much of the nation's bandwidth, it needs to reach new audiences in new places. With that in mind, it has embarked on a five-year plan with five key goals: Build the star power of individual drivers, increase engagement among children and college-age consumers, attract a multicultural fan base, craft more cohesive digital- and social-media strategies and improve the racetrack experience for fans.
Nascar CMO Steve Phelps is overseeing the execution. While some efforts kicked off in 2010, work over the next 18 months on the digital-media and multicultural-marketing fronts will be crucial. Mr. Phelps, star of a 2010 episode of "Undercover Boss," sat down with Ad Age to discuss the process of individual brand-building, the promise of a Hispanic fan base, and why the sport's legacy digital partnership won't work long term.
Ad Age : How do you go about building the individual brands of drivers?
Mr. Phelps: One key is that we're not just going to be focused on the stars of today but on those emerging stars even outside of the three national series. We're going back to the local level and identifying young talent. We'll start with kids that are 15 or 16 in developmental series. We'll identify who has the best talent and who has real charisma.
Ad Age : How far along is the process?
Mr. Phelps: We're in Round Two, where we are doing the profiles and brand mappings for 120 drivers. We hired two new people to take this on, and we'll talk to the team, sponsors and drivers to determine the best approach to have each driver break through. Certain drivers are media-savvy and like the lens, so to speak. Others, candidly, don't. So we won't ask a guy who doesn't want to be on TV to go on Fox to promote the Daytona 500. We may instead get him involved in a hunting and fishing blog, if that 's his passion.
Ad Age : How will your digital and social strategy shift going forward?
Mr. Phelps: We are hiring someone new, and a big part of the job will be training an entire industry -- from driver reps to driver teams to our own internal teams -- on social.
On the digital side, we've had a relationship with Turner since 2001, where they operate Nascar.com. That relationship has served our industry very well. That said, our agreement goes through 2014, and we will probably go in a different direction after that . Not because Turner has done anything wrong, but because in the future it will be important for us to control our own message and content. They have allowed us to take portions of their rights back. For example, all the Twitter feeds that we do come from our internal team and are not run by Turner people anymore.
Ad Age : How are you improving the event experience?
Mr. Phelps: We wanted to get a sense for how a Nascar race stacked up against other sports. So we [anonymously] sent families of four or four college buddies to a Nascar race, an NFL game, the circus or a concert. [A third party] asked what they liked about each one, which provided very rich data. What came out of it was, for a new fan, if they're not with someone who has been to a race before, they don't know how to be a fan. Where do I park? Where's my seat? We had guys come in button-down shirts and khakis, not realizing this is a big party. We'll use all of this to make changes.
Ad Age : How are you reaching a new, multicultural audience, specifically Hispanics?
Mr. Phelps: We've done some small things. At three of our race tracks we did heavy up-spending in those markets buying media. We had a virtual garage tour in Spanish. The Nascar website can be viewed in Spanish, as well, but that 's basically just a translation. Looking ahead, we're in discussions with a Spanish-language outlet to create digital content for us, and we hope to have meaningful content live in 2013.