Thursday, November 5, 2009

Searching for the Whitespace…

Note From JP: Sorry – no humor today – this piece is meant to be supportive of the Izod sponsorship deal, but OMG I never thought it would wind up being as long as it is…

Suppose you were running a company and it was floundering. You might decide to go out and hire some one with a fresh set of eyes to look at your situation and suggest things that no one inside your company might be able to suggest because they are too close to the issues at hand. Typically this means that you would go out and drop six to seven figures on a corporate consultant like Accenture, Deloitte or McKinsey.

McKinsey in particular, is known for a particular approach to solving all business problems – That being to coach companies into finding the Whitespace. Find the Whitespace, Fill it and Exploit it. SO what is Whitespace?? Finding the Whitespace is where a company decides to market a product to an underserved market. If there is an unmet need, then fill it. If there are underserved customers who can pay for service, then create a product or service and serve them. What goes along with this strategy, is the discipline of leaving behind markets that are already over served by numerous competitors or dominated by one that is insurmountable.

The sports landscape of the US is very simple, there is football and then there are a bunch of niche sports. Look at the ratings – there’s no way to argue otherwise. So as a member of the rabble of afterthought sports, what is the formula for success?? All sports media properties do one basic thing, they create a sports product with hopes to entertain a captive marketplace so that advertisers can market to that captive audience. Since all sports other than Football are niche sports, it means the audience for those sports is not a cross section of the general population. Those audiences have specific demographic characteristics that differentiate them from the general population. Those demographics then determine to a very large extent, the kind of advertisers that will pay to sponsor and advertise within those events.

Now let’s bring those McKinsey MBA’s into the discussion. In this context, finding the Whitespace would mean finding an audience for your sports media property that is unique and desirable that no other current sports media property can deliver to advertisers who wish to target that kind of audience for their products or services.

Traditionally, racing properties had audiences that delivered car people to automotive based sponsors (gas, motor oil, tools etc). What differentiated Indy racing and nascar back in the day was simply geography (both series had a pretty similar sponsor base). At some point, media exposure for both events grew beyond regionality and the two sports began to bump into each other for exposure to the same audiences. At that point, nascar was able to better appeal to the audience that changed their own oil, or spark plugs or who cared that the car vaguely looked like what was in their garage. Once that was accomplished, taking it a step further, nascar successfully expanded their fan and sponsor bases to include everyone who might regularly shop at Wal-mart and companies whose product’s might be on special at Wal-mart.

During this time, IndyCar split and squabbled…twice. 1979 and then again in 1995. Always so focused on the petty differences in house. During the second split both threw the concept of “Finding the Whitespace” to the wind, and focused on taking on an entrenched gorilla of a sports media property. The IRL thought it could run all ovals, hire all American drivers, go pack racing and out nascar nascar. Nascar, knowing that it would fail, egged it on and did all they could to nurture the futile effort. CART hired down on their luck F1 drivers and sought to take their racing to the world in an attempt to rival F1 itself. Without the signature event to draw large sponsorships, CART could not keep up with the soaring F1 budgets and the technological arms race that those budgets funded. By 2007 both had failed and heading into the merge neither had been able to forge it’s own sustainable identity or audience to pitch to sponsors.

So here we are, the Guys from McKinsey have just left the building and IndyCar is struggling to find the white space. Let’s think about the Goal for a second - Take racing to an audience that is either underserved by auto racing or that is not involved with the sport to begin which, at the same time, is desirable to a meaningful set of sponsors.

With two big swipes, we can identify where the “Whitespace” is for IndyCar. First, nascar is prowling the land and lays claim to walmart shoppers and sponsors. Since walmart generally serves the bottom half of households based on income, the Whitespace we seek will have on average, higher incomes. In this space plays F1 and sportscar racing. If either of these is entrenched with a fan, chances are that person is older (ie got into sportcars by joining a club, which meant that to be wealthy enough to own a 911 or ‘vette meant you had to have some years of disposable income under your belt), foreign born (forgivable – Sean you get a pass here) or stubbornly snobbish to the point of stupidity (ie an American F1 fan – yeah I’m talking to you David).

So we can now fully define the white space the series needs to pursue. Affluent (or potential to be Affluent), Young, Open Minded and Intelligent. Some people have suggested that X-gamers should be a target for the league, but this only glances the mark. The group to be targeted here are not X-Gamers – but rather X-Gamers who grew up, went to college and got a job. I understand that does not fit all current IndyCar fans – Please don’t go away, but to cite George, the Oil Pressure guy, please be welcoming of those who may start showing up and bank rolling your passion.

Now let’s ask the question, does IndyCar have to seriously worry about being out done for this potential audience??
--Will there be a challenge from nascar? No, because honestly this group probably holds their country cousins with a certain amount of cultural disdain.
--F1? No. Within this country F1 is an afterthought, in the rest of the world it is a beast. On US soil it is vulnerable – No US drivers, No US race and unless rabbits start appearing out of hats – no US team. A lousy on air product, broadcast in a horrible time slot. If the uninitiated were somehow able to stumble across a race, do you really think the racing product would fascinate someone? The technology only appeals to someone in the know already.
--Sportscars? They might have a chance – if only GT cars were on the track. But watching an ALMS race also includes the prototype classes. The LMP cars have wow factor, but there’s not enough of them to represent a competitive field and their existence marginalizes the GT cars that do.
--If there is a real threat here – it would be something like Drifting. But drifting does not have an anchor that is the cultural icon that the 500 is.

BUT Just because you are targeting a certain audience, does not mean your product is going to be found by that audience or greeted with receptivity. And this is where Izod Steps in. Hit the site ( look at the models. Who are their customers??? Looks to me to be the Whitespace audience the league is seeking. Izod introduces IndyCar to its existing clientele and by its endorsement says "Hey this is good - really good stuff". That group, if they stick, will be an audience that other sponsors may want to tap into. Products like Premium Alcohol, healthier energy products, higher end technology, potentially Tobacco companies looking for events to sample market innovative products like snus.

What does Izod get from the sponsorship? Let’s look at their mission statement. “Izod embodies a youthful, energetic spirit with a sports inspired lifestyle that’s seen in its embrace of bold colors and clean design”. They need a sport, a sport they can call their own, who’s image they can tailor to fit into that mission statement about “sport inspired lifestyle”. Golf is taken, the team based stick and ball sports simply are not appropriate. They see IndyCar as their best option to fulfill the mission.

So does it all seem a little pie in the sky, a product of overly hopeful thinking? Keep in mind – very few things in life have not happened or been tried in some shape or form before. Remember Michael Schumacher 15 years ago? Before he was the Red Baron? Before he drove for Ferrari? Remember his team? The sponsor of his Car? Remember the first world championship… driving the Bennetton Renault??? To this day the United Colors of Bennetton is one of the premier fashion labels in all of Europe. And on this day, about 12 hours from now, Izod hopes to have found in IndyCar, what UCB found in that Renault F1 team all those years ago. In Ryan Hunter Reay, at least in a marketing sense, it hopes to have found its Michael Schumacher for America…

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