Jimmie Johnson is in one of the few races this week that he has yet to win. The race to make his brand, and in a larger part the brand of NASCAR, relevant to the casual sports fan and the discretionary spender in the world's largest marketplace, the New York tri-state area.
It is a race that many have tried before. Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, Al Unser, even Formula One's Michael Schumacher...and although some have been met with casual success, the fact remains that with NASCAR still out of sight in terms of a race, it is still out of mind with the New York consumer. Can that change and can Johnson, a now a four time Sprint Cup champion, be the guy to change it? We shall see.
Let's be clear about one thing: There is perhaps no sports or entertainment brand that has done a better job in the last ten years in terms of brand integration and mainstream consumer growth than NASCAR. You cannot find a consumer product, identify a promotion or watch a video or a television program that the brand and its drivers have not touched, and even in a challenged economy, that has continued to hold true. NASCAR is also very much an experiential brand...if you go to a race and feel the excitement and do the product sampling and take hold of its passion and power, chances are you will be hooked for life. That has happened as NASCAR has expanded over the years, coming close to mass media markets like Chicago, Los Angeles and even Boston where those new consumers and converts can enjoy all that NASCAR has to offer first hand.
However that has not happened in the New York market, where attempts to bring the full NASCAR experience to the area have failed over the years, with the latest being the plan to build a track on Staten Island. Watkins Glen is not New York...Dover is not New York...Loudon, New Hampshire is not New York...and when you are competing for the discretionary dollar and those discretionary eyeballs that will complete a conversion, you need to be here. So if you can't bring the NASCAR mountain to Mohammad, can you bring Mohammad, or in this case, Jimmie, effectively to the mountain?
This not the first time NASCAR has brought brand exposure to New York. Race winners will always make their media tour and promotional visits, and NASCAR's annual events in New York with cars in Times Square and other events have drawn casual interest for years. This is much more of an immersion, and one that will hopefully pay off with long-term value for both the Johnson and the NASCAR brand. Tuesday's "Jimmie Johnson Day" is a good test to see where the brand is in 2009 and where it can go in the future.
Now Johnson is not the brash, egotistical, controversial champion that the New York fan can typically take to, love him or hate him. Controversy is not his strong suit. He is much more Derek Jeter and Roger Federer than Alex Rodriguez or Chad Ochocinco. Therefore helping him to be relevant needs to incorporate every piece of media touch point and association possible, and it seems like NASCAR has laid out that type of plan. Yes there is the national media tour, from Fox and Friends to Good Morning America and everything in between. There is also the charitable angle donating coats and brand jackets to a coat drive. But there is also the Mayoral acknowledgement, the naming of sandwiches at the popular watering hole Foley's New York (with portions of proceeds going to charity) and the ultimate large scale branding opportunity, the lighting of the Empire State Building in Johnson's team's colors of blue, white and yellow (for team sponsor Lowes) complete with Yankee star Johnny Damon in tow to help out.
So end of the day, will all this make New Yorkers follow NASCAR more, or will they continue to think of the Jimmy Johnson with a "Y," the one who coached the Dolphins, Cowboys and University of Miami and appears on their TV sets on FOX every Sunday, when the name comes up? Hard to say but with a push like this, it is a question that can now be asked.
What the day does is take Johnson's brand relevance to a new level, and one that can hopefully be sustained through similar programs and efforts over time, both with core fans who live in the area and with casual fans who may now have more interest if they saw or felt something about him during the day-long run. It also gives NASCAR a chance again to re-test the waters and see the stickiness of their brand with new and existing partners in a market which is still very much about today and extremely elusive for attention.
Is it worth the effort and coordination of such a large scale event? For a champion like Johnson, absolutely. Will it pay off in long-term benefits? If anyone can win the branding race for NASCAR in New York, Johnson certainly has the track record. Of course it would be easier if there was actually a track.
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