IndyCar in hot pursuit of younger audience with new marketing strategy

The IndyCar Series this year is shifting its marketing dollars from print and television to video production and paid social media.

The open-wheel racing series will spend up to half of its marketing budget on digital and social media, up from about 20 percent last season, said IndyCar marketing boss C.J. O’Donnell, adding that the total amount spent on digital and social media this year is tripling over last year. 

O’Donnell said the series has a multi-milliondollar marketing budget but declined to be more specific. 

To signal the shift, the IndyCar Series on Jan. 1 launched its “Next” campaign with a YouTube video. The season begins March 12 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The digital push—fueled by recent focus group studies—is an effort to go after millennials and other young viewers, O’Donnell said.

New York-based Miner & Co. Studio fueled the research that led to IndyCar’s strategy change, while New York-based Johnson & Wolverton is handling creative and other marketing duties.

Local ad agency Mortenson Safar Kim handles all of the media planning and buying for the IndyCar Series, and was a critical force in the series' shift to digital. Mortenson Safar Kim also handles all strategy, creative, digital and media planning and buying for Indianapolis Motor Speedway events.

Millennials, he said, “are not consuming TV in the same way that their parents did or even Gen X is.” 

“The research we did last fall tells us that Gen Y and Gen Z like our sport,” O’Donnell told IBJ. “They also told us how best to reach them with our message. That’s what this shift is all about.”

IndyCar’s marketing team over the last three years was focused primarily on winning back former fans who had fallen away–a group composed mostly of baby boomers or older folks. In that time, TV viewership for IndyCar Series races has increased from about 800,000 per race to 1.3 million per race, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research.

In 2016, ratings overall were up 10 percent, and the series’ races had their biggest average TV audience since 2011.

Still, many advertisers have told IBJ that IndyCar needs to continue to increase their TV reach, especially with more casual sports fans, to be attractive to consumer brands.

“The progress we’ve seen has been good. We feel good about that,” O’Donnell said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

O’Donnell said he wants to add “several hundred thousand” more viewers to IndyCar’s TV broadcasts.

O’Donnell said IndyCar has to find methods to deliver its message that will reach a potential new and younger audience, as well as its core audience. IndyCar will continue to partner with some traditional marketing partners including USA Today and Sports Illustrated, but instead of advertising in their print products will move advertising to their digital outlets.

The IndyCar Series isn’t the first entity to take this tack. NASCAR started shifting its marketing budget to digital and social in 2014. Urged by Indianapolis-based marketing firm The Basement, Visit Indy, the city’s tourism marketing arm, in 2015 shifted all of its leisure marketing budget to digital.

There’s no turning back from this new marketing direction, O’Donnell said. 

“This has to be long-term,” O’Donnell said. “We’re just now beginning to understand what it’s going to take to grow the sport over the next three years. We have to make sure we’re reaching people where they are.”

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