McLaren Racing: The People’s Team

McLaren have undergone an impressive rebirth in the last four years. In 2017, they finished ninth in the standings, and now they are third in the constructors, having taken their first win and double podium since 2012. But what do these successes have to do with a slick new marketing strategy?

Written by Ellie Bishop

October 5, 2021

The on-track reinvigoration has gone hand in hand with a rebrand of the iconic motor racing team. McLaren have found a way to walk the line between a luxury supercar brand, where the cheapest model starts at £140,000, and a team that encourages an intimate relationship between its drivers and fans. McLaren has always been cool, but the Woking-based business has shaken the mystique of opulence, indulging their fans in the ability to participate in their victories.

 

This recent success hinges around one impressive figure, the avuncular American Zak Brown. Brown’s background as a racer turned marketer has positioned him perfectly to reimagine and remake McLaren. In 2016, he became the executive director of McLaren Technology Group, and in 2018 Brown made the jump to CEO of McLaren Racing.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown (photo via formula1.com)

Brown stepped into the racing world in 1986, moving to Europe after five seasons of karting. Throughout the 90s, he spent his time competing on both sides of the Atlantic, dabbling in Indy Lights, German Formula Three and endurance races such as the GT2 category in the 24 Hours at Daytona (in which he placed second). His career took off with the establishment of his company Just Marketing International (JMI), in 1995. JMI is a marketing agency, offering sponsorship and advertising in Formula One, Nascar, IndyCar, MotoGP and the WRC. In an interview with Tom Clarkson on the ‘Beyond the Grid’ podcast, Brown recalls how he was always much better at finding sponsorship than actually winning races, and so in 2001, he took a sabbatical to focus on JMI. 

 

When considering what makes a Formula One team successful, it is easy to mention the skill and calibre of the drivers, the design of the car and the management of the team. What does not come to mind so quickly, however, is the back office marketing and sponsorship team. This is where the money comes from, and without the money, it is immensely difficult to sign the best drivers, build the fastest cars and recruit the finest management. 

 

Brown estimates that over the past 25 years, he has raised more than £2bn in sponsorship across a variety of motorsports series. In the past two years alone, McLaren has raised more than £1bn to assist in their long-term funding plans. Despite this staggering figure, Brown understands his limitations, he keeps an advisory board close by filled with CEOs and CMOs. He leaves the technical side to Andreas Seidl, the McLaren team boss Brown brought on in 2019. 

 

Brown has safely secured a high-level marketing business model, with over forty sponsorship partners, including high-profile brands such as Dell, Hilton and Coca Cola. In fact, Brown established the Hilton-McLaren sponsorship in 2005, over a decade before taking on a permanent role with the company. 

It isn’t just the complex world of sponsorship, Brown has also placed significant investment in McLaren’s social media team, stating how this has grown in size and strength over the last four years. 

 

In 2019, McLaren premiered their hugely popular ‘Unboxed’ series on Youtube, which follows the behind the scenes activities of their drivers and crew throughout the race weekend. Other teams have followed suit, with Williams producing an ‘Off Grid’ Youtube series, and AlphaTauri giving their version of events in ‘AlphaTauri All-Access’. They have brought this success to their IndyCar branch as well, launching ‘AMSP Unlocked’ in 2020 in time for the famous Indy 500. The series continued in the 2021 season due to fan interest. McLaren remains the most consistent and popular social media content producer, with many of their videos receiving over a million views. 

 

The world of F1 social media has become interactive. McLaren, again, have led the charge in creating a community of followers who show immense loyalty towards their brand. In return, McLaren collaborated with their fans. They have worked with sculptor Paul Oz (@pauloz on Instagram) to create a sculpture of Bruce McLaren, which was unveiled at the McLaren Technology Centre in 2020. McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo has also collaborated on a number of occasions with the digital illustrator Chris Rathbone (@R4THBONE on Twitter), with the McLaren site even displaying his work for official download. 

 

It helps that over the last three years, the McLaren drivers have been social media darlings, more than willing to tolerate the filming of challenges and interviews. The papaya team brought out the personalities of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris to great success, garnering the support of many fans. Their most recent addition Daniel Ricciardo fits right into their social media schedule as a born entertainer, with Brown specifically stating that he sought out Ricciardo to drive for McLaren due to not only his skill but his ‘big personality.’

McLaren drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris in the McLaren x Gulf livery for the 2021 Monaco GP (photo via theguardian.com)

Of course, these personalities form a wonderful platform for McLaren to produce and advertise merchandising opportunities. The 2021 McLaren x Gulf line, created to celebrate the Monaco Grand Prix sold out within an hour and was relaunched a few months later due to huge demand.

 

Zak Brown has also led the way in diversifying McLaren Racing’s involvement across many series, including IndyCar. In 2019, McLaren Racing entered IndyCar through a strategic partnership with SPM. The partnership announcement highlighted McLaren’s commercial experience and marketing strength, drawing on their success in Formula 1. In August 2021, it was announced that McLaren had acquired a 75% majority stake in what is now known as Arrow McLaren SP. They came close to clinching the 2021 Championship, with Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward’s title hopes crushed due to a collision with Ed Jones on Lap 1 of the IndyCar season finale. 

 

McLaren were also early adopters of F1 Esports. In 2017, they launched their virtual racing programme, McLaren Shadow. The 2020 Formula One Esports Series drew a record audience of 11.4m live stream views across all digital platforms, with support for F1 Esports growing throughout the pandemic. 

 

McLaren can only go from strength to strength as we move into the new regulations of 2022. The strength of their brand is intoxicating; at the 2021 British GP, the grandstands were filled with seas of orange. It is the people’s team. In Italy, there are two religions; Catholicism and Ferrari. It seems entirely possible that a new generation of fans could show similar feverous support for the Woking-based team. 

 

It is safe to say that McLaren’s marketing strategy has begun to repair the years of diminished performance. A race win, a pole position, and more to come. Finally, the team is beginning to live up to its long and illustrious history in motorsport.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

One of Ellie’s earliest memories growing up is watching Formula 1 on television with her Dad. She recently graduated the University of Manchester studying Latin and English Literature. Currently, she is interning full time for a major British news publication as a junior editor. Ellie is particularly interested in the marketing and management side of motorsports. She also spends her time singing in choirs and visiting the latest London art exhibitions! You can find her on twitter at @zephyrellie.

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