Monday, May 20, 2013

IndyCar: A Case Study in Brand Positioning

One of the most important strategic decisions a marketer must make is how to position a brand. Simply put, brand position is consumers' perceptions of the point of difference a brand possesses relative to competition. Positioning is such a critical decision because it permeates all marketing communications. It serves to reinforce the brand's value proposition in the target market's mind. Besides, it is unrealistic to expect customers to remember everything about your brand; what is the one thing about your brand with which they should immediately associate? The answer to that question likely yields the answer of how to position your brand.

Why Positioning Matters
Brands that struggle often can trace at least part of their problems to lack of a distinctive brand position. If we look outside of sports, two brands that exhibit what can happen when lacking a distinctive position are Kmart and J.C. Penney. For years, Kmart languished while its mass merchandise competitors Walmart (low price) and Target (trendy image) have thrived. Kmart lacked that "one thing" for which it is known as being superior to competition. More recently, J.C. Penney has fallen on hard times as the company's efforts to reposition its brand as a unique shopping experience met with resistance from customers who prefer JCP's frequent sales.

The seminal book on brand positioning is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. While this book is more than 30 years old, the core message is as strong today as ever: Differentiate your brand or it is doomed to mediocrity at best (more likely failure). The struggles of Kmart and JCP are evidence of what can happen when positioning strategy is not clearly articulated.

The Perils of a Weak Position
IndyCar is in an interesting situation in that it has options for positioning its brand to compete domestically against NASCAR and globally against Formula 1. Once a strong American motorsports property, IndyCar is the survivor of a devastating split in open-wheel racing in the late 1990s. In the years that open-wheel racing interests (as driver talent, sponsors, and fans) were divided between the Indy Racing League and CART (later Champ Car), NASCAR established itself as the dominant racing circuit in the US. The two factions reunited in 2008, but the damage had been done. Open-wheel racing was essentially irrelevant compared to NASCAR. One piece of evidence is TV ratings- IndyCar races on NBC Sports Network averaged about 292,000 viewers in 2012 compared to more than 5 million viewers for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.

What Should IndyCar Ride?
IndyCar has positioning options as it continues to rebuild. Among the strengths of the brand are:

  • IndyCar's mix of street races, road courses, and oval tracks offers variety and challenges drivers
  • IndyCar's driver roster has a distinctive global flavor as more than a dozen countries are represented by drivers currently competing in the Izod IndyCar Series 
  • IndyCar makes drivers accessible to fans, holding autograph signing sessions regularly at racing events
  • IndyCar Fan Village, an interactive fan experience at race events, excels in engaging fans
  • Indianapolis 500 is a crown jewel of American sporting events
Some sports industry observers questioned whether the post-unification IndyCar brand could regain relevance. And, those concerns are legitimate given the puny TV ratings IndyCar generated last year. In the end, the success of IndyCar will depend on the same variable that holds the fate for virtually all brands: A distinctive brand position. Can IndyCar cultivate a point of difference that matters to the marketplace and build its marketing efforts on that position? If yes, IndyCar can carve a niche in the North American sports market. If no, well just ask management at Kmart and J.C. Penney about that.