Indy Racing League Seeks a Kiss of Marketing Savvy

A Look at Its Partnership with Rock Star and Promotional Entrepreneur Gene Simmons

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Don't let the tongue, big ego and rock 'n' roll past fool you. When it comes to making money, Gene Simmons is serious. Serious as cancer. And with the advent of Simmons Abramson Marketing, a partnership with former "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" producer Richard Abramson, he thinks he can make money for you, too.
Best known for the Kiss persona that catapulted him to international celebrity, Gene Simmons is also a businessman with an animated TV series, two TV reality shows, his own record label, two best-selling books and the marketing company Simmons Abramson, which has been working on the Indy Racing League account since last year. That campaign now has a new Gene Simmons theme song, 'I am Indy.'
Best known for the Kiss persona that catapulted him to international celebrity, Gene Simmons is also a businessman with an animated TV series, two TV reality shows, his own record label, two best-selling books and the marketing company Simmons Abramson, which has been working on the Indy Racing League account since last year. That campaign now has a new Gene Simmons theme song, 'I am Indy.' Credit: AP
Of course, any marketer looking to hitch its wagon to the Simmons Abramson experience will have to buckle up for the ride. After all, Simmons is the guy who refused to use the preferred acronym for his first client, Indy Racing League, because IRL sounds "corporate and worse" (worse, in this case, being "a disease").

'Your logo sucks'
According to Mr. Simmons, the first thing he told Indy representatives was: "Indy's fantastic, but your logo sucks." He had a few other comments as well. "The Indy Racing League used to be No. 1," he says. "Nascar eclipsed it and left it in the dust ... because, quite frankly, Nascar did a better job of it." But Simmons Abramson, which partnered with Indy in January, set out to change all that.

The approach was simple: Play up the phrase "Indy" and its ties to independence and individuality; focus on the speed of the cars; take a more Nascar approach in making the drivers into distinct personalities (rock stars, if you will); and create a theme song.

Theme song: 'I am Indy'
Yes, a theme song: "I am Indy," which Mr. Simmons recorded with the one artist on his own record label, a man by the name of BAG. (The song complements the "I am Indy" ad campaign.)

Most of this, as one would expect, was met with a resounding round of skepticism and disdain. "Oh, it was horrible," Mr. Simmons said. Then again, "You should have seen the comments when [Kiss] first put makeup on."

Yes, the makeup. As in Kiss. In the course of the brand's 32 years of existence, it has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and has 24 gold and 10 platinum records under its belt. Oh, and the small matter of 2,500 licensed products, from condoms to, most recently, a Kiss Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "When we sit at home, we make more money than we do on tour," Mr. Simmons says.
Gene Simmons on the job at a speedway.
Gene Simmons on the job at a speedway. Credit: AP

'Too rich to care'
Kiss' history may explain why Indy took a deep breath and gave the relationship a whirl despite some of the baggage Mr. Simmons brings to the table (Simmons Abramson's one other client is mobile-phone storefront provider G8Wave). While he may be serious about making money by concocting marketing campaigns, Mr. Simmons is brash, outspoken, even abrasive. (One of the reasons he's not afraid to speak his mind to business partners, he says, is "How do I put this? I'm too rich to care.") There's also the small matter of his many other business ventures. And, more often than not, regardless of what's being marketed, Mr. Simmons himself tends to become the story.

Mr. Simmons, for his part, is quick to point out that the marketing company could "just as easily be called Abramson Simmons marketing." While people are initially drawn to the company because "of my ugly mug," he says, "they soon find out I'm a little bit more than what I seem like and that we actually do have the goods with Rich Abramson -- who might as well have horns on his head if it's true that the devil is in the details."

'Are you nuts?'
When Mike Ringham signed on as Indy's VP-marketing in October 2005, the Simmons Abramson deal was already under way, and he admits he had his own concerns about it. "Being a fan myself, I was unsure about what this guy would bring to the party. And some of my friends who are fans were on the phone with me immediately, saying, 'What are you guys doing with Gene Simmons? Are you nuts?"' Mr. Ringham points out that "Gene as frontman" was a bit of misperception created by the press that Mr. Simmons "reluctantly accepted when it was thrust upon him, and did quite well, I think, for a racing novice." Mr. Ringham, you could say, has become a fan.

And while Mr. Simmons is aggressive, Mr. Ringham says, "I wouldn't call him abrasive at all. But he does know how to market, has strong opinions and is a tough negotiator."

As far as the full plate goes, Mr. Ringham says, "Gene and Rich both assured us -- and demonstrated more than once -- that this effort is extremely important to them. And in my mind it's become a personal challenge for them that they very much care about."

Rare flash of humility
Talking about the deal even brings out a rare public flash of humility from Mr. Simmons. "I can't tell you the amount of pride we have in seeing an entity that size that's willing to trust us."

There is method in his madness and, even while holding court with journalists, the man who admits that he loves to hear himself talk will drive the message home over and over again. In the course of an hour-long interview, in which he covered everything from fashion models to the "pathetic" condition of the American male, Mr. Simmons repeatedly steered the conversation back to the Indy script.

"In essence what we're doing is making Indy cool. It's cooler than Nascar and Formula 1 for one very simple reason: It's faster. These are the fastest cars on earth. So that makes our jobs easier."

"It's just about repositioning a message and then rolling up the sleeves and doing the work ourselves," he adds. One example: After inviting himself to a branded-entertainment conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, Mr. Simmons met with representatives of NBA star Carmelo Anthony. That meeting resulted in Mr. Anthony becoming the first African-American to co-own an Indy racing team. The deal, in fact, is exactly the sort of thing that Simmons Abramson was hired for. According to Mr. Ringham, Simmons Abramson wasn't hired to be ad agency or spokesman, but to "utilize Rich and Gene's extensive contacts and marketing prowess to assist in our business-development initiatives." (Indy is conducting a review for an agency but wouldn't disclose those participating.)

Indy Girl line of clothes
Another of those initiatives is expanding the Indy brand. There are plans, for example, to home in on women, with talks of an Indy Girl line of clothes and accessories.

"Doesn't even mention the word car. Why should it?" Mr. Simmons says. "If there are guys walking around with little insignias on their shirts showing a little guy on a horse, I guarantee you most of those guys don't have a clue what polo is, what the rules are, or what that guy's doing on the horse or even what the ball looks like."

Purists, not surprisingly, have taken some umbrage at Mr. Simmons' efforts to cast the Indy net as wide as possible. "I'm not in the purist business," Mr. Simmons says. "I'm in the people business. Purists will be dragged kicking and screaming into a world they don't want to be in. ... Our only precondition that you become an Indy fan is that you love it. You don't have to know squat."

But Mr. Ringham maintains that Indy is "currently targeting motorsports fans primarily" and that Messrs. Simmons and Abramson are themselves becoming better-educated Indy fans. "Rich has attended every event so far this year, and Gene has only missed two," despite his myriad other obligations.

Attendance up 20%
The results? Scads of press coverage, of course. According to Mr. Abramson, attendance is up some 20% over last year. And, says Mr. Ringham, so are sponsor value and merchandise sales. "And if you adjust for the Danica factor in '05, we've got a nice trend going on a three-year basis," he says.

And Mr. Ringham's evaluation to date on Simmons Abramson: "I think Gene and Rich were a bit surprised at how long some of these things take to do. ... Given that, they have done quite well, and I anticipate that will become more apparent shortly."
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