If you are expecting Heineken’s involvement in Formula 1 to simply be setting up a beer tent at each grand prix, think again.
The brewing giant has not spent the last two and a half years “flirting with Formula 1,” as its marketing guru Gianluca di Tondo described it, before signing a four and a half season global partner deal that represents 10% of its global media budget to get F1 fans beered up.
You only have to look at Heineken’s advertising campaigns in Champions League soccer, and to a lesser extent – given it happens every four years – the Rugby World Cup, to recognize Heineken is a serious player and knows how to reach consumers. Its use of social media and digital platforms is something Formula 1, and its CEO Bernie Ecclestone especially, has so far struggled to explore and exploit.
By his own admission, Ecclestone has “never taken a lot of notice” of social media, but says he is hoping now Heineken is “going to wake me up a bit.”
Di Tondo feels F1’s digital presence is “largely unexploited,” despite it being “one of the biggest global platforms in the world.” Heineken’s first advertising campaign, featuring one of its two new F1 ambassadors in Sir Jackie Stewart, is “mindblowing” and “very powerful” according to senior director di Tondo.
“We are a brand that is very demanding,” he said. “We don’t just place our logo and that’s it. If we enter into something we want to add value.
“From a pure partner standpoint, I believe we can do for Formula 1 what no-one has done before, because we see so much space where we can add value, and that for me was the trigger. When I discussed it with my boss, I told him we could leverage this platform to a level that has not been seen before.”
Heineken is eager to push itself and F1 beyond the core TV broadcasting audience, on which the latter has relied for far too long.
And given Heineken’s mass-market appeal, it is also determined to break through the barriers that exist between F1’s elite and its casual fans, at the same time increasing its own reach by an estimated 200 million people.
“We really want to go beyond broadcast, which is why I keep on insisting on the power of such a media as digital. This is where we are great as a brand,” di Tondo, (right, with Ecclestone) said. “We are great at telling stories, and Formula 1 is a huge content provider of stories.
“And I can split myself as a ‘fan’ because I’ve attended grands prix in the Paddock Club, and also out of it – the two worlds are too far apart. Our role is to open this world of Formula 1, remove the wall in between, and try to connect again with the fans.”
Heineken is naturally strong in the European market, as well as in Africa and South America through its Champions League program and plans to draw on F1’s strengths in the Asia Pacific region and North America to provide it with truly global coverage.
“First of all, we plan to show them what we are doing in other platforms, and the power of social media and digital to get reach,” di Tondo said. “At the end of the day, for us, we are talking about reaching new consumers to turn them into Heineken drinkers, and reaching new spectators to turn them into Formula 1 fans.
“The most powerful thing when you want to start shaking the status quo of someone or an organization is to show them the results of what it means. We can move them and show them the benefits of these activations.”
There is also a serious message behind the partnership – which is crucial when you consider the road safety campaign FIA president Jean Todt has waged since he first took up office. Welcoming such a high-profile alcohol brand such as Heineken to F1 would appear to be at odds with Todt’s lobbying. But Heineken is aware of its responsibilities, and a key part of its involvement centers on its responsible drinking campaign that goes by the slogan, “If you drive, never drink.”
“In preventing people from drinking and driving, we are going to be massive and have an impact because we are very good at communicating these kind of things,” explained Di Tondo. “We know how to reach the consumer in the right way.”
There is a bottom line, of course, because Heineken is a business. Naturally its balance sheet is what matters most. But to make money it has to invest, and as Di Tondo points out, Heineken is ploughing considerable resource into F1.
“We are going to be unapologetic about this – we are not doing Formula 1 to say, ‘If you drive, never drink,'” di Tondo said. “We are in Formula 1 because we believe Formula 1 will help us to grow.
“Contrary to the other brands, we have a strong commitment and investment we are putting behind this. When you talk about 10% of your global media budget, you are talking about serious money. And when you are talking about 30% of your visibility related to this kind of message, you are again talking about serious money.”
Make no mistake, Heineken has not entered the world of F1 on the cheap. It is serious, in it for the long haul and determined to make a difference.