Is activating F1 in 2021 the biggest challenge for sponsors yet?

20th May 2021

It’s nearly 18 months since the first reported outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan and, for your average fan, it feels like the world of sport is gradually returning to normal. The FA Cup Final welcomed a trial crowd, the UEFA European Championships and the Olympics are (hopefully) fast approaching, and this weekend, Formula 1 is off to the jewel in its crown; Monaco.

On Sunday afternoon, our attention will focus on a battle of wills between Hamilton and Verstappen, Championship contenders fighting it out inches from the barriers on the streets of Monte Carlo. Yet, for many brands involved in the sport, this season feels more akin to the position held by a backmarker. Whilst Formula 1 might be back in action, traditional sponsorship activation is still miles off the pace, and it’s made us ask the question; is 2021 now becoming the more challenging year for sponsors as a result of the pandemic?

When the shutters came down in March 2020, it was an unexpected and unplanned time for all involved but the situation was clear; no traditional activation would be possible in the immediate term and, as it turned out, for the foreseeable in 2020. But come 2021, despite best endeavours and high expectations, for a global series and its partners the picture appears much more confusing.

For example, take this weekend’s race in Monaco. Formula 1 personnel are able to travel so the circus can deliver 78 laps of exhilarating wheel-to-wheel combat around one of the most famous tracks on earth. Additionally, a crowd of 7,500 per day are expected to watch the action from the grandstands around the circuit but despite this step forward, there is no hiding from the fact Monaco is, in a normal year, the race at which to woo key stakeholders, partners and potential sponsors. It’s rarely a priority race for a brand’s media activation (Monaco is, after all, the only real story of interest) – instead it’s renowned for world-class hospitality to rival any in the sports and entertainment world. Yet, the current restrictions in place do not make this easy, if at all feasible, for anyone.

The first challenge is travel into Monaco itself and, once there, VIP guests will be confined aboard their yachts and in their apartments. It might sound like the most first-world problem of them all, but in the context of a world-class hospitality programme, how can sponsors extract value from the experience when no crossover is possible with the Formula 1 teams and assets confined to the paddock bubble?

Whilst guests can still watch the cars speed around the track, they won’t get to experience the usual exclusive moments comprising garage tours, pit lane walk, and driver meet and greets that otherwise enable the full Formula 1 VIP experience.

But is there a solution?

So far this season, rights holders have been forced to prioritise their top tier partners with personnel restrictions in the paddock resulting in only one or two special guests, at a push, able to be attend a race weekend. To expect anything more, has simply not been feasible.

For those with partners in other markets still facing lockdown measures and travel restrictions, the focus tends to revert to virtual based engagements for the most part.

However, it’s now over a year into the “new” remote ways of activating and, understandably, it’s hard to always keep things fresh. “Zoom fatigue” has crept in and the once novel virtual offerings now feel a little ‘been there, done that’. New ideas are much needed to keep the top partners, and spenders, engaged.

It would, perhaps, explain why McLaren’s one-off Gulf livery has received such a phenomenal response this week. Sure, it might look epic and tick all the nostalgia boxes, but would a sponsor-led livery garner quite so much attention in a normal year? Possibly not, but it’s a fantastic example of a team willing to prioritise their partner and think outside the de facto virtual platforms.

For partners, the landscape for activation is just as muddied. The FIA and F1 restrictions mean in-person events still remain largely off the cards and, for anyone brave enough to plan ahead, at risk of being cancelled at the last minute due to local market restrictions. Unless you’re also a Formula 1 global partner, any track-based activations are out of the question, or, only made possible with significant influence and support from the team in question. If you’re going to play it safe, any existing virtual offerings will need new purpose and reinvigoration to credibly differentiate them from the experience of 2020.

Unfortunately, it’s also a situation that’s unlikely to change in the short-term. Rights holders and partners might be eagerly anticipating the British Grand Prix to be the point at which F1 life returns to normal but there can be no guarantees. For any partners looking to attend from outside the UK, the government’s traffic light travel system is not making it any easier to plan. To date, HMG has been firm that no restrictions will be lifted until 21 June at the earliest – nowhere near enough guarantee to plan and deliver an international programme. 10 days quarantine on arrival is not exactly an enticing prospect for anyone, let alone a partner’s most senior stakeholders, to kick-start a long weekend in Northamptonshire.

The final twist of the knife might soon come for brands who could quickly start to lose 2021 budget allocations. It will take a Financial Director with a particular love of F1 who allows six months of unspent budget to roll over into H2 especially when, presumably, many other departments are crying out for help.

For any partner, planning for multiple scenarios will remain vital in 2021. Any ambition to host large international events – including physical hospitality and hosting – will soon have to take a back seat in favour of an agile and nimble approach to opportunistic activations with ample contingencies.

Plan B’s and C’s at the ready will remain essential this season, even more so than last year. Any such plans will require:

  • a constant state of review
  • confident fail-safe dates (that are enforced)
  • a continual supply of new ideas and the willingness to adapt
  • plans that are ready to deploy should the stars align but that can be just as easily adapted or switched off entirely at the eleventh hour with minimal budgetary impact
  • a capable team ready to extract maximum value when the opportunity presents itself because nobody can predict when the next one might come along

Whilst the battle on track remains fierce, it’s off-track battle which would seem to represent the biggest challenge for partners in 2021.

Photo credit: © Steve Etherington for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd.

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