Marketing GT Racing – Ian Forbes At SRO
The motoring media is abuzz with talk of the renaissance of GT racing, with new and exciting cars coming to the track.

Almost every weekly and monthly motoring magazine lately has featured one or more of the new breed, with the Aston Martin DBR9, Chevrolet Corvette C6.R and Maserati MC12 capturing the imagination of writers and photographers who would seldom normally take a second look at motorsport.

The potential to draw in a more mass market audience is clear but, with the cost of bringing the new breed of GT1 cars to the track somewhat on the pricey side, the challenge to draw in commercial backing is becoming more necessary too.

Stephane Ratel’s SRO Ltd is, of course, now seen as the driving force behind GT racing in Europe (and perhaps beyond!) But there is a pressing need to help drive commercial interest in the sector, a task made more difficult by the prevailing attitude that the mass market, manufacturer-supported series (F1, WTCC, DTM and BTCC among others) should get a perhaps unduly generous portion of the mass media attention and organisational support.

dailysportscar.comThe challenge then for SRO is to change attitudes both within motorsport and in the wider commercial world. It’s a huge task and the pressure is firmly on the shoulders of both Stephane Ratel and the new Managing Director of SRO Marketing Services, Ian Forbes.

Forbes has brought a dash of Aussie realism to the SRO mix: a hugely professional and massively experienced advertising and marketing man, his brief is simple to explain but tough to deliver. If he manages to achieve his goals however, he could just make the single biggest leap forward for GT racing in Europe for a decade, not in terms of the cars or the racing on offer, but rather in terms of the commercial support that sustains the racing.

So just who is Ian Forbes?

“My early career was spent in advertising in Australia working as an Account or Strategy Director with international groups, and subsequently as Managing Director. After establishing and selling a successful agency, I was looking for a new challenge and a new area of focus.”

It was during this period that Forbes developed his key specialism, pitching - an area that had “always held great interest” to him. Forbes joined an international consultancy that worked with senior executives to help them win many of the world’s biggest contracts. This company, the largest in its field and headquartered in Australia, was best known for helping Sydney win the 2000 Olympic bid, as well as its work in the media, IT, defence and construction industries.

Joining as a Pitch Practice Leader in Australia, after three years he moved to London, to be the European Practice Leader. Pitching is an often underestimated skill which, if you get it right, can reap huge rewards. He did get it right – and often!

“Throughout my time in pitch practice, our clients had a 68% success rate, winning more than £3 billion. That’s even more impressive than it sounds as you have to remember that clients don’t hire a pitch agency if they’re expecting to win! Typically they rated their chances of winning at 20-50% before taking us on.”

The lure of motorsport beckoned, and Forbes then had a spell as strategy director for one of the top F1 marketing agencies.

“I worked alongside F1 teams and sponsors developing commercial partnerships, as well as providing a ‘marketing audit’ service that helped a team understand the commercial opportunities that existed and showing them how that might be best realised, using the knowledge I had gained from working as a consultant to many different industries.

“Doing this stuff for an F1 team was interesting, but perhaps a little frustrating at times. The budgets in F1 so enormous that there are only ever a small number of potential sponsors that can afford to spend what is needed to make an F1 sponsorship work. It was around this time that Stephane asked if I’d review his series to assess the potential.”

It would be a turning point for Ian Forbes.

“I found there were fantastic possibilities. The opportunities for commercial partners are enormous, and affordable. The challenge is helping them all to realise that, bringing them on board and keeping them here.

“SRO Marketing Services’ role is to identify ways in which all stakeholders can benefit – circuits, teams and sponsors. We all need to understand the value of what we have and its limitations. Essentially there are no mass volume car sales involved for the marques that race in GT. A far more realistic and appropriate commercial model for us is corporate or brand linkage. This is where a brand benefits from being associated with the prestige names in GT racing. This is not the same as in, say, BTCC, where mass market sales of the cars themselves drives the investment in that series.”

Forbes is a firm fan of the concept of ‘aspirational motorsport.’

“GT cars are the ones most of us would be choosing to drive if we could. The appeal of touring or rally cars is obvious, they are the cars most people actually ARE driving - but GT cars are dream cars, the ones on the front cover of car magazines, on executive desks as models, and on the bedroom walls of youngsters.

“These cars are recognised all around the world, not just in one part of it. Racing these dream GT cars therefore holds great appeal to fans of cars and motorsport, and increasingly, to manufacturers. Aston Martin is a great example of this. They had the option to badge an engine or build a prototype, but decided the best way to promote their brand was to build a fabulous looking GT car.

“The challenge now is to start to translate this burgeoning interest into a major push to draw more brands (automotive and non-automotive) into what could be the next major player in the world of motorsport – GT racing.

“The basis of a marketing package based on aspiration is simple, and motor manufacturers already understand it. Major volume motor manufacturers invest a disproportionate amount advertising their most expensive models. It’s the same for brands in other markets too. There is a definite ‘halo’ effect which boosts the image of their other products in the hearts and minds of other potential customers.” (Think Golf GTI, Ford RS, AMG Mercedes etc).

“We need to show major brands that investment in GT racing can deliver them a major advantage, not just a strong return in exposure, but also by proving the business case for linking their brand to some of the best automotive brands.”

As an example of the sort of concept he was endeavouring to explain, Forbes points to a laptop computer on his desk, an Acer co-branded with Ferrari, both companies’ logos placed side by side on a high quality consumer product.

“Our initial focus is talking to brands, introducing our product and explaining to them where the advantages lie from linkage with GT racing. We can now show exactly the financial value we deliver to a sponsor, and we can also show them through research how the association with GT cars can attracts more attention to their brands in advertising, and hence greater sales. It is then a short step to proving that, for many brands, GT racing would deliver a better return on investment than from other motorsport categories or from other sports, including tennis, golf, sailing or football. Importantly, the size of the investment is far more realistic and a far more saleable prospect for most companies, especially compared to F1.

“We must however make sure that the product lives up to the billing. We know that the cars and the racing do the job but the supporting package needs to be top drawer too. Hospitality for instance is a key part of the attraction to a commercial partner and the standards we need to demand on that front have to be just as high as the engineering standards applied to the race cars.”

Forbes recognises though that the corporate support is merely one part of the overall picture:

“Securing corporate support and building the consumer show, the two are inextricably linked. Bums on seats are important but I firmly believe we have to gain a groundswell of corporate support behind GT racing to begin with. With that in place the available resource to market the whole package to the public becomes easier to source and justify.”

Sort of “If you build it they will come?”

“Exactly! But the difference here is that we’re already preaching to the converted in some respects, there is already an audience for these cars and for this sort of racing, the challenge is to improve the status and packaging of the ‘events’.

"It can and has been done with individual races (Spa, above) and many of the elements to build upon for a full Championship effort are already in place. Our paddock has to be an impressive and coherent spectacle in its own right and massive strides have been taken in recent years to achieve that. Our sort of fans also want to get close to the cars and drivers and this is where we can start to win over support from other areas of motorsport.”

Ian can certainly talk the talk. Teams and fans will wait for the visible results of his efforts with eager anticipation.

The first move seems to be an association with, rather than dailysportscar.


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